May 31, 2005

TV: the summer reality onslaught begins...

Three new reality shows debuted over the holiday weekend -- one that looks to be quite entertaining, one disaster, and one that it's too soon to tell.

The good one is VH1's Kept. The premise is a bit sleazy: Twelve handsome young American men are brought to London to compete for a year-long position as Jerry Hall's kept boy. She'll be eliminating them one by one, based on their performance in various competitions and their skill at adapting themselves into the sophisticated European companion she needs. She's joined by a group of her best friends, who will help her evaluate each young man's performance, and it is the conversations among them that are the best part of each show. Jerry and her friends are witty, bitchy, and deliciously blunt in criticizing the shortcomings of each would-be companion; it's like watching an especially catty group of drag queens who just happen to have been born female. Throw in the cute boys, and there's enough there to keep me watching.

The disastrous new show is Fox's Hell's Kitchen. British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay comes to Hollywood for an Apprentice-style elimination process, which will lead to one would-be chef being given his/her own restaurant. Most of the contestants don't have a lot of restaurant experience, so it was not surprising that the first night of business at Hell's Kitchen -- the Hollywood restaurant where Ramsay will evaluate their performance -- was a disaster. If Ramsay were a charming or witty person, if he really were "the Simon Cowell of chefs," the show might have potential. But he's just nasty, unpleasant, rude, and abusive, and the show is painful.

Somewhere in between is Strip Search, another VH1 show. The goal here is to find15 men who will be brought to Los Angeles and compete for 7 spots in a new all-male dance revue -- that is, strippers. The first episode finds Billy Cross, the Australian impresario who will be training the contestants, and his airheaded co-host Rachel Perry, driving cross-country to audition some of the applicants. By the end of the first night, they've found only three who they like, and are worried that the second half of the trip (in next week's show) won't turn up enough to fill out the roster of 15. Billy's charming and likable, but Rachel grates on me. That's irrelevant, of course, since this show is about nothing more than beefcake, and its ongoing appeal will depend almost entirely on whether the 15 finalists are cute enough to draw me back for another hour of shallow pleasure.

Still to come this week: The WB's Beauty and the Geek, in which teams of hot babes and geeky guys have to help each other prepare for a series of competitions (week one: a spelling bee for the girls, a dance competition for the guys); ABC's Dancing With the Stars, in which half-a-dozen B-list celebs team with professional ballroom dancers for an American Idol-style competition, with one team eliminated each week; and NBC's Hit Me Baby One More Time, in which has-been bands and singers (Wang Chung! Gloria Gaynor! God help us, Tiffany!) compete for a chance at a comeback.

It's gonna be a loooooong summer...

BOOKS: The Great Movies II, Roger Ebert (2005)

Every two weeks, Ebert writes an essay on a "great movie" for the Chicago Sun-Times. One hundred of those essays were collected in The Great Movies (2002); a little more than two years later, here's another batch.

Ebert takes pains in his introduction to clarify that the first book should not be considered the 100 greatest, to which the movies in the new book are merely a second team. No, he says, these are all great movies, and there's no prioritizing implied by the order of their appearance; it might just be an art-house revival of a film, or maybe a new DVD release, that leads to any particular film being written about. (The full list of Ebert's Great Movies, along with links to each essay, can be found here.)

Two of the essays in this volume are slight cheats, since they don't deal with single films; one is about the collected work of Buster Keaton, and the other deals with Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy. The others cover a wide range of films -- American and foreign, comedy and drama, silents and expensive epics -- each dealt with in an intelligent essay of 3-4 pages, explaining why this is a film worth seeing.

Ebert's thoughts on The Birth of a Nation are particularly thoughtful; he begins by acknowledging that he had avoided discussing the movie for some time because it is so controversial and stirs such divided feelings; even those who admire its filmmaking craft and innovation, as Ebert does, have no choice but to condemn the film as racist. But ultimately, Ebert concludes, "the film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing....That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values."

It's an eclectic mix of films. Universally acknowledged classics like Breathless and Shane sit side by side with lesser-known films like Stroszek and Victim. Ebert recognizes that a great movie need not be a profound movie, and includes movies that are simply brilliant entertainments (This Is Spinal Tap, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark).

You're sure to disagree with at least one or two of Ebert's choices (I mean, Roger, c'mon. The Color Purple? Really?), but that's half the fun of a book like this. The other half is being led to movies that you'd never seen or never even heard of (Tokyo Story and The Earrings of Madame de... are both getting added to my Netflix list), or reminded of movies that you need to see again (so is Laura).

MOVIES: Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2005)

Mysterious Skin isn't always easy to watch -- a movie about the sexual abuse of children shouldn't be easy -- but it's a powerful and heartbreaking movie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is remarkable in one of the leading roles.

The movie tells the parallel stories of two boys, Neil and Brian, growing up in the same Kansas town. Brian (played as a boy by George Webster, later by Brady Corbet) is a nervous, bookish child who suffers from blackouts and nosebleeds that began one summer day when he was eight, an afternoon of which he has no memories. These are five hours of "lost time" for Brian, and he becomes convinced that he was abducted by aliens.

Neil (Chase Ellison as a child; Gordon-Levitt as a teen) remembers his eighth summer perfectly; that was the summer that his baseball coach molested him. Neil becomes a hard young man who keeps his emotions firmly under wraps and supports himself by hustling, first in his home town (where there seems to be a surprisingly large number of clients and surprisingly little gossip) and then in New York.

There is a lot of sex in this movie, which will keep some away, but it is less graphic physically than it is emotionally. The flashback scenes involving the child actors are very carefully written and edited so that the boys never have to say or do anything inappropriate, but we are left with no doubt what's happening.

Brian's ongoing search for the truth about his lost hours lead him inevitably to Neil, and the scene in which Neil explains what really happened on that day is a marvel, both men having extraordinarily complicated reactions to those memories.

The performances are all just right; in addition to Corbet and Gordon-Levitt, there's fine work from Mary Lynn Rajskub as a UFO nut who befriends Brian, Jeff Licon as Neil's best friend, and Elisabeth Shue as Neil's mother.

Mysterious Skin, based on a novel by Scott Heim, recognizes that children have sexual feelings and responses far earlier than we generally acknowledge, and deals with that fact in a non-exploitative way. It's a remarkably good movie, sad and lyrical; above all else, it's brave enough not to reduce the story to just a tale of two-dimensional villains and victims.

May 30, 2005

MOVIES: Crash (Paul Haggis, 2005)

In the style of Magnolia or Short Cuts, we follow a dozen or so Los Angelenos through a day as their paths keep crossing in unexpected ways. The backdrop to all of their interactions is race, as the stereotypes and prejudices they hold shape their reactions to one another. An Iranian shopkeeper thinks a Hispanic locksmith is trying to cheat him; a white cop explodes at the African-American HMO clerk who won't help him get treatment for his ill father; an Italian producer suggests to an African-American director that one of his actors needs to sound "more black."

It's a large ensemble cast, and the performances are all terrific, with especially good work from Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard, Matt Dillon, and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. Keith David has a single memorable scene, and Ryan Phillippe, I think, is going to be a very good actor in five or ten years, when his prettiness has worn off enough that we allow him to be one. Also on hand: Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, Larenz Tate, Tony Danza, Marina Sirtis, and Loretta Devine.

There are two moments in the movie that annoyed me. The characters played by Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton cross paths twice; the second encounter is too big a coincidence for me to swallow, even in a movie built around the coincidental crossing of paths. And there's a scene late in the movie that uses a child for a particularly cheap bit of emotional manipulation.

But those moments aside, Crash is a fine movie. Paul Haggis has a good ear for natural-sounding dialogue; James Muro's cinematography is lovely, particularly in the movie's final moments, which echo Magnolia's storm of frogs in an odd way; and Mark Isham's score underlines the emotional tensions of the movie without being too obvious about it. Don't miss this one.

May 29, 2005

MOVIES: Nine Queens (Fabian Bielinsky, 2000)

Juan is pulling a small-time con on a gas station clerk when things go wrong. A stranger steps in with an improvised con of his own to save Juan from being arrested. That stranger turns out to be Marcos, a con man who just happens to be in need of a partner, and thinks that Juan (despite his inexperience) might fit the bill. And on their first day of working together, an enormous opportunity falls into their laps, involving a millionaire who's about to be deported and a phony sheet of rare stamps.

And that's the setup for Nine Queens, a very smart and snappy con caper from Argentina, full of twists and double-crosses and plans gone bad. When the final twists are revealed, the plot falls completely to pieces, of course -- there are far too many coincidences and moments where the plan only works if the mark reacts in one specific way -- but that's to be expected in a con man story. This kind of movie isn't about whether the plot holds up in retrospect; it's about the journey, and writer-director Fabian Bielinsky gives us a terrific rollercoaster ride.

There was a US remake last year, Criminal, starring John C. Reilly and Diego Luna. I can't imagine that it was as good as the original, but I am curious now to see it, just to see what was changed (there's one plot point late in the point that would be nearly impossible to make work in an American context) and how badly they screwed it up.

May 28, 2005

BOOKS: The Little Women, Katharine Weber (2003)

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have met the author socially once or twice at dinner parties and similar occasions. We're not close friends, by any stretch; even if we were, that wouldn't keep me from giving an honest opinion about her work. I'm a strong believer that the author is not the book, and criticism of the work isn't meant to be (and shouldn't be taken as) criticism of the author. That having been said, it's still more fun when you can say nice things about the work of people you know, and there are very nice things to be said about Weber's The Little Women.

Meg, Joanna, and Amy Green are sisters, living an idyllic family life in Manhattan when they discover that their mother has been having an affair. Furious at her for violating the sanctity of their family, and even more furious at their father for forgiving her, the two younger daughters leave home and move in with Meg at her New Haven apartment (she's a Yale student).

Three years later, Joanna has written an "autobiographical novel" about the sisters' time in New Haven, and it is Joanna's The Little Women that Weber gives us here. In a "Note to the Reader," Joanna explains to us that her sisters objected to her publishing this book at all, and that as part of the legal settlement allowing it to be published, she has been obliged to let her sisters insert their own commentary throughout the book, in the form of Reader's Notes, to which she often responds with her own Author's Notes. What that gives us is a literary version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, with Joanna's novel as the background against which all three sisters kibitz and grouse at one another.

Meg and Amy have complaints about both halves of the phrase "autobiographical novel," complaining that Joanna has altered the facts in some spots and been unkindly honest in others, which raises the closely related key questions of the book: How far from reality can an author stray and still call her work "autobiography" (or "memoir"), and how close to reality can an author stay and still call her work "fiction"? Even more important, what responsibility does an author have to the people and events in her life that may be used as source material for her work?

The structure of the book poses some unusual challenges. Joanna is 17 at the time of these events, 20 when her book is published, so Weber has to write in the voice of a young, inexperienced (though not untalented) writer. And in the brief space used for Reader/Author Notes -- somewhere around ten percent of the book, if that much -- she has to give us enough sense of who Meg, Joanna, and Amy are in the "real" world outside Joanna's book that we have some idea when Joanna might be distorting events and why.

Given the names of her characters, and of this book, it's clear that Weber is also riffing on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and there are supporting characters in Alcott's novel who have analogues here -- the best-friend boy-next-door type who is a potential suitor, the older European professor. Having not read Alcott, I have no idea how close the parallels run, and that didn't keep me from enjoying the story at all; I would imagine that familiarity with Alcott would only provide additional levels of enjoyment. Of course, since Alcott's characters have become so well-known and loved in our culture, Weber's use of them means that all of the questions that Joanna's sisters raise about authorial responsibility towards those who've inspired her writing might equally well be directed at Weber.

As if all of this wasn't enough to think about, in the final colloquy of Reader/Author Notes, Joanna (and Weber) drop a bombshell that makes us go back and re-evaluate the entire story from a new perspective, and reminds us that the phrase "unreliable narrator" is almost always redundant.

If all of this has made The Little Women sound like a tedious exercise in literary theory, it's not. The characters are vivid, the prose is crisp and witty, and the story moves along in a brisk, lively fashion. It's an absolutely delightful book. Highly recommended.

MOVIES: Madagascar (Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath, 2005)

Madagascar tells the story of Marty, a zebra at the Central Park Zoo (voiced by Chris Rock) who finds himself longing to experience "the wild," much to the dismay of his perplexed friends. Alex, a lion (Ben Stiller), is the zoo's star attraction, and can't imagine anything better than his pampered life of steaks and public adulation; Melman (David Schwimmer) is a hypochondriac giraffe, terrified of leaving his doctors and his pills ("I am not going HMO!" he shrieks at the thought of leaving); Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) is the gang's maternal figure, mending fences after each of the boys' squabbles.

Marty's breakout attempt goes bad, and the four find themselves on a boat headed for a Kenyan wildlife preserve; when they're separated from the boat, they wash ashore on Madagascar and find that life in "the wild" isn't what any of them had expected. (Geographically, this makes no sense, of course. Imagine a boat sailing from New York to Africa, and try to imagine how anyone's going to wash ashore on Madagascar, with the entire African continent between them and that island.)

The animation is a bit clunky, especially when compared to the brilliance of Pixar's movies, but the movie's look is bright and colorful, and some of the backdrops are lovely to look at. The voice work is generally effective. Chris Rock isn't a very subtle actor, but that lack of subtlety works better here than in live-action. David Schwimmer and Ben Stiller are playing their standard roles, but doing so quite nicely; Schwimmer is particularly funny, finding more variation that you'd expect in Melman's panic and hysteria. Gloria's the least interesting of the characters, and Pinkett Smith doesn't get much to do.

The best performance, though, is Sacha Baron Cohen as Julian, the king of the island's lemur tribe. Julian speaks in an accent that's a mix of Indian, Jamaican, and Yiddish, and his favorite subject is his own brilliance. (His chief lieutenant barely even pretends to put up with him anymore, introducing him in a bored voice: "And now here he is, Julian the 13th, self-appointed king of the lemurs, blah blah blah, hooray hooray.")

Madagascar isn't dazzling work, but it's a pleasant diversion.

May 27, 2005

This re-design of the standard prescription medicine bottle is brilliant. Unfortunately, the patent on the bottle is held by Target, which means that Target pharmacies are the only place you'll be able to get them. Wouldn't it be nice to see Target do the right thing and make this available to all doctors and pharmacies? (Yeah, I know, I'm not holding my breath.)

(via Reflections in d minor)

May 26, 2005

BOOKS: Company Man, Joseph Finder (2005)

Nick Conover is the CEO of Stratton Furniture, and until recently, he was a hero in his small town. But he's had to lay off thousands of people in the last year, and now he's known as "The Slasher." Everyone in town is either an ex-employee or related to one, and now there's a stalker menacing his family. Nick decides to take action against his stalker, which leads to a murder; to top things off, Nick then begins a romantic relationship with the dead man's daugher.

Now, this is not the most obviously sympathetic protagonist in the world -- a corporate CEO responsible for crippling the economy of his home town and murdering one of his ex-employees -- and if nothing else, Company Man is fascinating as a technical exercise. How does Finder not only keep us from hating Nick, but actually have us rooting for him to get away with his crime?

He starts by stacking the deck in Nick's favor, making him extremely sympathetic or victimized in every other area of his life. He's recently widowed; his teenage son is an increasingly hostile drug user; his subordinates are conspiring to take Stratton Furniture away from him.

Next, he introduces Eddie, Stratton's head of security, who helps Nick cover up the crime, then goes slowly wacko on Nick, getting more and more paranoid at every turn; as Eddie gets more and more desperate and vicious, Nick seems reasonable by comparison.

Finally, he has Nick wallow in guilt, constantly torn between not wanting to be caught and his newfound desire to do the right thing. (A shame he hadn't thought of doing the right thing before he pulled the trigger.)

If you're not bothered by the idea of a novel in which the killer is the hero, this one is solidly constructed and nicely written. The chief detective on the case is a nicely drawn character, and the relationship between Nick and his son is convincing. The identity of the ultimate villain is a bit too easy to figure out, but Finder keeps the story zipping along. He's a solid writer -- I enjoyed his previous novel, Paranoia, very much -- but Nick's a bit too anti an anti-hero for my tastes.

May 25, 2005

Need a new source of book recommendations? The folks at StoryCode have an interesting approach. You "code" each book you read by answering a series of questions, all on sliding scales (Erotic or not? Scary or not? Character-driven or plot-driven? Many characters or few?), and providing an overall star rating (from 1 to 5). Based on your ratings, and on the collective wisdom of everyone who uses the site, you'll be given a list of recommendations; the more books you code, the better the advice should be. Probably not something I'll use -- my list of books to be read is long enough without having to actively seek out more titles -- but a neat idea.

The latest craze in the UK is a puzzle called Sudoku, according to the Associated Press. They've been in US puzzle magazines for at least the last twenty years -- though I've never heard the Japanese name before -- and they are lots of fun, though I'd never have expected them to be the next big fad. (You can try your hand at the puzzle here.)

May 24, 2005

TV: American Idol -- the finals!

Let's not beat around the bush: Bo didn't have a particularly good night tonight, but Carrie had an even worse one, and it will be a tremendous upset if she wins the competition.

I'm taking things out of order in this wrapup. Each singer sang three songs tonight, one chose from earlier in the competition and two original songs, one of which -- "Inside Your Heaven" -- they both sang; it'll be the Official First Single of the winner.

"Inside Your Heaven" isn't much of a song, and Bo sounded a bit bored with it at the beginning. He never did connect with it or get much personality across, but it was at least a competent performance. Carrie, on the other hand, had her worst pitch problems of the night on this song. She was terribly sharp on the chorus, with a nasty harshness to her tone; she was quite flat at the big dramatic key change.

In their other original songs, it was about the same. Bo's "The Long Long Road" began with a quiet intro that was a bit too low-pitched for him, and he had a few pitch problems in the chorus, something that's rare for him. The last note was particularly unattractive. Carrie's "Angels Brought Me Here" was the least interesting of the original songs, and Carrie didn't seem sure of herself singing it; she sounded strained and tense throughout. There was a telling moment when the camera panned past Carrie in the foreground and one of her backup singers, out of focus, in the background; that fuzzy woman in the distance had more stage presence than Carrie, and was more interesting to watch.

For their "greatest hits" selections, Bo chose "Vehicle" and Carrie chose "Independence Day." I was surprised by Bo's choice; I hadn't thought it was one of his more impressive performances. (Had it been up to me, I'd have gone with "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" or another run through "In a Dream.") But I think now that part of that may have been that the song simply seemed so out of place, shoehorned as it was into 70s dance music night; that was less of a problem tonight, and the song worked better than it had.

Carrie's "Independence Day" was really her only choice. (It wasn't her best performance, mind you; that was "Hello, Young Lovers," but there was no way in hell she was going to choose that tonight.) It was probably her best performance of the night, but even here, she sounds tense, with a clenched back-of-the-throat quality to her voice that wasn't pretty to hear.

In short, all three of Bo's performances, weak as they were, were better than all three of Carrie's performances, and I'm predicting that Bo wins with no less than 54% of the vote.

And a few year-end awards:

Best performance: Nadia, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me"
Runner-up: Bo, "In a Dream"

Worst performance: Scott, "One Last Cry"
Runner-up: Mikalah, "Love Will Lead You Back"

Voted off too soon: Nadia
Runner-up: Jessica

Lasted too long: Scott
Runner-up: Mikalah

Most disappointing: Anwar
Most pleasant surprise: Vonzell

BOOKS: Home Life, Sam Lipsyte (2005/2004 UK)

In a series of letters to his high school alumni newsletter, Lewis "Teabag" Minor (class of '89) reports on his life, which has not been a particular success. Lewis drifts from job to job, has only one close friend, and doesn't get along with his father. (A typical piece of Minor fatherly love: "Do you think my world turns on your happiness? Your success? Do what you please. Just make sure you're alive to wipe my ass when I'm an invalid.")

Lewis knows that his updates are never actually going to be published in Catamount Notes, which is only interested in reporting on the stars of his class -- the state senator, the pro baseball player -- and certainly doesn't want to hear his blunt descriptions of a life that didn't pan out that well.

For 60 pages or so, I was in love with this book. The prose is distinctive and very funny, and Lewis manages to be lovable despite his lack of interest in life, success, or other people. But as the book goes on, the bleakness of Lewis's life gets tiring, and the humor becomes more desperate and frantic. That's the point, of course; Lewis jokes about life because it's easier than actually participating in it. But for all of Lipsyte's stylistic tricks, he doesn't provide an answer to the key question: If Lewis doesn't give a crap about his own life, why should I? The punchlines began to feel like an assault.

Here I am 40 pages from the end of the book, and I just can't bring myself to finish the damn thing, which I set aside with great disappointment.

May 22, 2005

MOVIES: Thoroughly Modern Millie (George Roy Hill, 1967)

Three generations of musical-theater royalty come together in this, one of the last of the big 60s musicals. In the lead, you've got Julie Andrews; and in supporting roles are Carol Channing and Beatrice Lillie.

The setting is 1922 Manhattan, and Millie Dilmount (Andrews) has just arrived in search of a husband. Her plan is to find a job as secretary to an eligible bachelor and marry him. Among her housemates at the Priscilla Hotel ("for single young women") is Miss Dorothy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore), who insists on being addressed as "Miss Dorothy" and dreams of a career on the stage.

James Fox and John Gavin are on hand as the romantic interests, and are ideal as broad caricatures of (respectively) boyish enthusiasm and manly pulchritude. Channing brings her unique persona to the role of weathy socialite Muzzy, and Lillie, while clearly past her prime, shows flashes of greatness as Mrs. Meers, the villainous hotel manager. (And Lillie didn't make many movies, so this is one of the few chances we have to see her work at all.)

A movie like this depends on its star; Andrews is in almost every scene, and she's delightful. It's always a joy to hear that impeccable, crystalline voice of hers, and she's ideal for this part, in which she's torn between the man she loves and the man she thinks she should love.

There are flaws, to be sure. The portrayal of the Chinese bad guys is offensive even by 1967 standards. Mary Tyler Moore is badly miscast; she's far too intelligent and sexy a presence to be believable as the naive Miss Dorothy. And the last 45 minutes or so drag a bit, as the story moves away from the romantic plots to the white-slavery story.

Those problems keep Thoroughly Modern Millie from joining the ranks of the great movie musicals, but it's still a pleasant piece of fluff, and I enjoyed it more than I'd expected to.

May 21, 2005

MOVIES: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005)

Well, the movie looks terrific, and it's even reasonably entertaining so long as the screen is filled with aliens and distant planets and battles and spaceships. But the second that anyone actually says something, the whole thing goes to hell and back because of Lucas's complete hostility to such niceties as acting and dialogue.

Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson are among our best actors, and Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman have done solid work in other movies. But in the Star Wars movies, they aren't simply giving bad or ill-conceived performances; they're deliberately flat and lifeless. Whether he's right for a role or not, you don't get "boring" out of Samuel L. Jackson unless you've asked for it. People have long said that George Lucas doesn't know how to direct actors; the truth, I think, is even worse. He is directing them, and getting exactly what he wants from them: hollow, vacant performances that will not distract from his creatures and his effects.

There is one good performance in this movie, and that's Ian McDiarmid as Chancellor Palpatine. It's a broad, deliciously unsubtle performance; McDiarmid wallows in Palpatine's evil, and knows exactly how far to go without completely collapsing into camp. When Palpatine tells Anakin that "the Dark Side brings with it many powers, some of which have been considered -- (dramatic pause) -- unnatural," there's such sly wit and intelligence in his delivery that you wonder how Lucas let him get away with displaying an actual personality.

There are, of course, no surprises in the story -- Anakin is tempted to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader; the Chancellor becomes the Emperor; Padme delivers little Luke and Leia -- and there are moments, especially in the last half-hour, when Lucas is clearly going through the storytelling motions, putting in pieces the details that have to fall into place for Episode IV.

But the battles are fun, the effects are impressive, and McDiarmid is a hoot, which adds up to enough reason to see the movie. And heck, you've seen the first five movies, you might as well finish off the series, right?

May 19, 2005

TV: the 05-06 season is announced!

This was the week when the six TV networks announced their new programs and fall schedules. Zap2it has a nice one-stop listing of each network's schedule, along with capsule descriptions of all the new fall (and mid-season) programs.

A few thoughts and observations:

Wednesday at 9 is a completely overhauled hour -- six hour-long shows, four of them brand new and two of them being moved into the timeslot from elsewhere. Lost figures to win the hour, but it will be fun to watch the rest of them (Criminal Minds, E-Ring, Head Cases, Veronica Mars, and Related) fight it out for second.

Most annoying new timeslot conflicts: Alias vs. Survivor on Thursday; The West Wing vs. The Simpsons on Sunday. Thank god for Tivo.

Everyone seems to have decided that there's room for competition on Thursday at 8. Survivor and The O.C. return, along with (inexplicably) Joey; they're joined in the time slot by Alias, Smallville, and UPN's new Chris Rock-produced sitcom.

Most lethally dull timeslot of the week: Friday at 8. Supernanny, Ghost Whisperer, Three Wishes, Bernie Mac, What I Like About You, and WWE Smackdown. I don't think I could have designed a less appealing assortment of shows.

Notable trends: The supernatural/aliens; more strongly serialized dramas; the continuing popularity of crime shows; a dramatic decrease in the amount of reality (Three Wishes is the only new reality show announced); the continuing decline of the sitcom.

Jerry Bruckheimer breaks Aaron Spelling's record for producing the most hours of television in the lineup. In addition to his current six hours (three CSI shows, Cold Case, Without a Trace, The Amazing Race), he adds Close to Home, E-Ring, and Just Legal; his first sitcom, Modern Men, is due midseason on WB.

Shows that make me curious enough to watch at least an episode or two:
  • Commander-in-Chief (though I fear there's going to be not enough "Madam President" and too much "President Mommy")
  • Invasion
  • How I Met Your Mother (Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan? What's not to like?)
  • Close to Home (could be as sappy as Judging Amy, but I fell in love with Jennifer Finnigan in Committed, so she gets a chance)
  • Prison Break and Reunion (both because I like long-form, serialized story telling)
  • My Name Is Earl
  • Just Legal

May 17, 2005

TV: American Idol -- "choice" night

The weekly recap: There's a fourth judge on hand for the first time this season, as Clive Davis, whose record company will be stuck with the winner, joins in the critiquing. The theme tonight is "choice," and for Round 1, Clive has chosen the songs.

Vonzell, "I'll Never Love This Way Again" -- two weeks ago, I had Vonzell leading the pack, but she's been off since then. She seems very insecure on the verse, and her pitch is wobbly. The chorus improves, but it's still not great. Things get a bit better after the key change, when she gets to belt -- lord, these Idol girls love to belt -- but it's not a great performance.

Bo, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- there are some quieter moments in this one than we usually get from Bo, and they are very lovely moments indeed. This is a superb performance, and the song suits him far better than I'd have expected.

Carrie, "Crying" -- the song is so condensed that Carrie doesn't get to make the slow transition into the upper register that we're used to hearing, and her sudden jump up is a bit jarring. Carrie seems a little stiff, perhaps, but the notes are solid, and she does nicely with the song.

Round 2: The contestants get to choose their own songs.

Vonzell, "Chain of Fools" -- because it wouldn't be a season of American Idol if a black woman didn't sing "Chain of Fools." Vonzell gets to show off her power, and it's an entirely adequate performance, but there's something lacking; Clive says the "soulful essence" of the song is missing, and that seems as good a summation of the problem as anything.

Bo, "Without a Dream" -- sung unaccompanied, a gutsy move. The song isn't much to speak of, a collection of bluesy/gospely cliches, but Bo's performance is almost flawless. Most impressive.

Carrie, "Making Love Out of Nothing At All" -- again, the transition from low register to high has to be awkwardly rushed. I wasn't excited by the song choice, but the song turns out to fit Carrie's style surprisingly well. It's her best moment of the night, and the big money note at the end is very nice indeed.

For the third and final round, each of the judges has picked a song for one of the singers.

Vonzell, "On the Radio" (chosen by Simon) -- the slow intro is pretty, and there's a lovely break in Vonzell's voice that I hadn't heard before. This is her best of the night, but it hasn't been a good night for her; she's seemed distant and distracted throughout.

Bo, "Satisfaction" (chosen by Paula) -- let's face it, there's not much to this song. The melody is repetitious and confined to a narrow range; the lyrics are nothing special. The reason we love the original is that Mick Jagger gives one of the great iconic personality performances in rock history. Bo sings the song very well, with a nice moment or two of smirky attitude, but he ain't no Mick Jagger.

Carrie, "Man! I Feel Like a Woman" (chosen by Randy) -- the problem here is that this song needs to sit right on the edge of trampy sleaze, and Carrie just doesn't have that in her. I flashed back to her Elvis number from a few weeks back, when she was trying to convince us that she was "evil;" nope, not gonna happen. The notes are solid, and she's enjoying herself, but the song is all wrong for her.

For the night: Bo in a landslide, followed by Carrie, with Vonzell a distant third.

For the season: Overall, it's a tossup. They've all had fine moments; they've all had disasters. Anyone of them will make a perfectly competent album; none of them will have anything like the kind of success that Kelly Clarkson or Clay Aiken has had.

Most deserving to go home: Vonzell, who doesn't seem to have withstood the pressure of the final rounds as well as the other two.

May 16, 2005

BOOKS: The Litblog Co-op's first "Read This!" pick

The Litblog Co-op is a group of 20 bloggers who focus on books. A month or so ago, they announced their "Read This!" project: Four times a year, the group would choose a book that they thought hadn't received the attention it deserved, and promote it on the group's blogs and those of the group's members. Back in April, this is what one of the group said:
We don't intend to consider the already-hyped books published by the most prominent members of the "book business," and we won't become an organ for promoting and aggrandizing the big publishers....What this venture ultimately amounts to is a group of book lovers who, because they've managed to establish a platform for discussing the books they love, have joined together to call attention to a few (four times a year) that might otherwise be buried in the deluge of the newly-published.

So it's something of a surprise, and quite a disappointment, to see that the Co-op's first choice is Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, a novel that's won rave reviews in most of the major newspapers and review journals, was on many year-end "best of" lists in 2004, and while not a monster best-seller, has hardly been "buried in the deluge."

I'd been looking forward to the Co-op's selection, hoping it would be something genuinely off the beaten path, an author who would really benefit from the publicity and the recognition. Instead, we're given a mainstream, successful midlist author, winner of major awards for her earlier work; indeed, her Behind the Scenes at the Museum has been popular with book groups for a few years now. (And it is a most entertaining book.)

Here's hoping the Litblog Co-op's future choices will be as exciting as their earlier manifestos seemed to promise; we really don't need another Oprah.

May 14, 2005

MUSIC: BBC2's "Living in Harmony"

Radio BBC2 has just begun what looks to be a fine 6-part program on the history of vocal harmony. You can listen to Living in Harmony here; the first episode aired last Tuesday, and each will be available online for a week, until the next installment airs. It's a wide-ranging enterprise; the first program featured music from (or interviews with) the Manhattan Transfer, the Bobs, the Mills Brothers, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and the Comedian Harmonists.

Thanks to A Cappella News for the info.

MOVIES: Up for Grabs (Michael Wranovics, 2005)

Up for Grabs is a delightful documentary about the legal battle over a baseball. When Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run a few years back, setting the new single-season record, two men lay claim to the ball, which was worth a lot of money, potentially as much as $2 million.

A TV cameraman was only a few feet away as the ball came down, and we can see the ball land in Alex Popov's outstretched glove; as Popov brings his arm down, he's knocked to the ground by the swarming crowd. We can't see what's going on in the melee, but it's another man -- Patrick Hiyashi -- who comes up with the ball. It only takes a few days for Popov to file suit against Hiyashi, claiming that the ball was stolen from him.

Neither man is a particularly sympathetic figure -- Popov, in particular, is intensely self-absorbed and arrogant -- and the general reaction to the trial, which was front-page news in San Francisco, is that it's a waste of time and money. The movie follows the case through the verdict, which manages to be both surprising and inevitable, and on to the auction of the ball, which brings surprises of its own.

This may all sound a bit dry, but director Michael Wranovics tells the story with a nice comic touch, playing up the absurdity of the events and the poetic justice of the outcome, in which each man gets about what he deserves. It's a charming little movie.

MOVIES: Monster-in-Law (Robert Luketic, 2005)

Monster-in-Law isn't the utter disaster that a lot of the reviews have called it; it's just completely predictable and utterly mediocre. Jennifer Lopez is better than I'd expected -- I haven't seen any of her movies since Out of Sight -- and I'd like to see her again in a movie with a decent script and an actual story.

In this one, Lopez plays Charlie, a temp/dogwalker/cater waiter who meets Mr. Wonderful on the beach. He's Kevin, played by Michael Vartan of TV's Alias; Kevin isn't much more than a plot device here, and Vartan is certainly up to the movie's limited demands on his talent.

Kevin's mother is Viola, a TV newswoman/interviewer -- think Barbara Walters -- who's just recovering from a nervous breakdown after having been fired and replaced by a younger, prettier newsbimbo. Viola is devoted to her son, and horrified at the news that he's marrying Charlie, who she thinks isn't nearly good enough for her precious boy.

Viola is played by Jane Fonda, making her movie comeback after 15 years, and she's entirely wrong for the part. I can't claim an encyclopedic knowledge of Fonda's career, but I don't recall that broad physical comedy was ever one of her strengths, and she's not very good at it here. In addition to near-slapstick, Fonda's also called on to do a lot of suppressed anger as she tries to make nice in Kevin's presence; I couldn't help but think how much better those scenes would have been played by, for instance, Candice Bergen.

Fonda isn't helped by the script. Viola is so loathsome that we've no choice but to root against her, when the movie would have better off giving us a battle of moral equals; had Viola had some legitimate reason (even if one arising from confusion or mistaken belief) to despise Charlie, she'd have been a bit more sympathetic and the conflict between the two women would have been a lot funnier.

The movie's other major role is Ruby, Viola's personal assistant, played by Wanda Sykes. Sykes gets most of the movie's biggest laughs (and I am not generally fond of her at all), but the role -- a sassy black woman -- is an appalling throwback, and I was surprised to see Sykes stooping to such minstrelsy.

Elaine Stritch arrives late in the film for a brief cameo, and she brings to her scene a crispness and a sense of timing that the movie had lacked until that point. Wouldn't it be nice if someone would write a good movie around her?

May 10, 2005

TV: American Idol -- country/Gamble & Huff night

Not a good night overall for the Idols, with only one or two decent performances in the bunch.

The rundown:

Round 1 is country, a traditional stumbling block for would-be Idols.

Carrie, "Sin Wagon" -- the song suits her, and a lot of personality comes through, but her voice sounds awfully clenched, as if her throat is clamped shut or she has a bad cold.

Bo, "A Great Day to Be Alive (?)" -- it's a dull song, and Bo is giving absolutely no energy to it. And why is he lugging the mike stand all around the stage? Doesn't he realize that the mike comes out?

Vonzell, "How Do I Live" -- she's very uncomfortable with the song, and more nervous looking than she's ever been. Her pitch is flat, and there's a nasty lyric bobble before the second chorus. Her worst performance to date.

Anthony, "I'm Already There" -- he'll never be a country singer; his voice is all wrong for it. But this is the sort of big sappy ballad that Anthony does well, and though this isn't his best performance, it's good enough to take the honors in a weak round.

Round 2: the songs of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, which should be cause for a bit more optimism.

Carrie, "If You Don't Know Me By Now" -- horrible song choice. She's clearly uncomfortable, and her pitch is off, though her voice doesn't sound quite so tight as in the first round. Still, it's been a very bad night for Carrie.

Bo, "For the Love of Money" -- reasonably well sung, I suppose, but why this choice? This song is all about the arrangement and the groove, not the singer.

Vonzell, "Don't Leave Me This Way" -- whatever emotional turmoil was bothering Vonzell earlier in the evening seems to be behind her now. This is a solid song choice, and a fine performance.

Anthony, "If You Don't Know Me By Now" -- unusual to hear the same song twice in one night. Unlike Carrie, Anthony nails it; he's comfortable with the odd half-spoken rhythms of the verse, and he understands what the song is about. One of his best performances to date.

For the night: Anthony, Vonzell, Bo, Carrie.

For the season: It's essentially a four-way dead heat. If you forced me to pick a leader, it would be Vonzell.

Deserving to go home: Either Bo or Carrie; I think Bo's fan base will keep him in, and Carrie will get the boot.

May 09, 2005

BOOKS: A Changed Man, Francine Prose (2005)

Vincent Nolan, a former member of the Aryan Resistance Movement, arrives at the headquarters of human rights organization Brotherhood Watch, and says that he's had an epiphany, a conversion, and that he wants "to help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me."

The fallout from Vincent's conversion will be dramatic, changing not only his own life, but that of Meyer Maslow, the charming Holocaust survivor who heads Brotherhood Watch, and especially that of Bonnie Kalen, the foundation's chief fundraiser, who takes Vincent into her home as a guest.

Prose is a fine writer, and her storytelling skill kept me going despite the many implausibilities of the story. Vincent's conversion is never terribly well explained, and Meyer and Bonnie seem awfully quick to accept Vincent and his story at face value; only very briefly do they consider the possibility that VIncent's motives in infiltrating Brotherhood Watch might not be as pure as he claims. And the book dribbles to a weak conclusion that leaves far too many plot threads unresolved.

Still, A Changed Man is good enough that I might check into Prose's other work. I've heard that Blue Angel is worthwhile. Any other recommendations, anyone?

May 08, 2005

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic / Evelyn Glennie

Last night's Philharmonic concert was a bit on the disappointing side, though percussionist Evelyn Glennie was, as always, most impressive.

The concert opened with Copland's Organ Symphony, a very early work that doesn't sound much like Copland's best-known pieces. It's a meandering, rather tuneless affair that didn't hold the audience's attention very well at this performance; the coughing breaks between movements were the longest I've ever heard. The role of the organ in the symphony is of an odd size, too big to imagine the piece without the organ, but not quite large enough to make it a full-fledged concerto. (Copland eventually did revise the piece for performance without organ, as his Symphony #1.) Mary Preston was the organist, and though I'm no organ expert, it seemed to be a fine performance.

Next up, Evelyn Glennie gave the US premiere of the Concerto Fabuleux, by the young Dutch composer Marijn Simons. The concerto's in three movements, named after the dragon, the werewolf, and the unicorn. Simons seems to be more interested in tone color and sonority than in melody or harmony, and there are some lovely sounds in the concerto -- a passage for bowed vibraphone and low strings, the lovely combination of marimba and celesta -- but to my ears, there wasn't much holding the pretty moments together in a cohesive whole.

Glennie's performance was, I think, all the piece could have wanted. She's a very theatrical performer, and watching her play is as much fun as listening to her. There's a passage for a set of tuned gongs which hang on racks to either side of her, and as she leans from side to side to strike the gongs, occasionally reaching back over her shoulder without looking, each note struck with a slow deliberate motion, it's like a slow-motion outtake from a martial arts movie.

Glennie returned after intermission to perform her own transcription for vibraphone of Vivaldi's Piccolo Recorder Concerto in C. I've not heard the original, but I'm sure that Glennie's ornamentation of the melody line in the fast movements is more elaborate than any recorder player could pull off; her arpeggiated figures and scales fly by at dizzying speeds. It was the highlight of the evening.

Finally, the orchestra closed the program with Respighi's Pines of Rome. It's one of those orchestral showpieces that is filled with audience-pleasing moments; it's exceptionally skillful cheap music. This was a reasonably good performance, but the ending -- an enormous climax of frantically sawing strings, crashing cymbals, and loud unison brass melodies -- wasn't so much thrilling as it was just loud. The guest conductor for the evening, Michael Christie, is quite young -- barely in his 30s -- and perhaps he'll develop a bit more subtlety with experience.

May 06, 2005

Sand artist at work

This 9-minute video clip is stunning, an artist at work in a very unusual medium. The music that's playing is annoying, but the clip is beautiful to watch.

(courtesy of shaken & stirred)

TV: playing network programmer (UPN/WB edition)

Let's wrap up this week of second-guessing with the two smaller networks. First, the WB:

7:00 Charmed (repeats)
8:00 Charmed
9:00 Steve Harvey's Big Time Challenge
8:00 7th Heaven
9:00 Everwood
8:00 Gilmore Girls
9:00 One Tree Hill
8:00 Smallville
9:00 Jack & Bobby
8:00 Blue Collar TV
8:00 What I Like About You
8:30 Reba
9:30 Living With Fran

There's a distinct style to the WB drama -- enough cute youngsters to keep the teens happy, mixed with smart enough writing and acting to keep the adults interested. Six of their seven dramas are doing very well (by WB ratings standards), with only Jack & Bobby seemingly in trouble; that show's mix of teen soap and political flashback apparently being too big a clash in tone to keep either audience happy.

Also potentially in trouble: Living With Fran, which doesn't seem to be dazzling anyone in its tryout run.

The WB strategy of airing an earlier season's episodes of some show in the early Sunday timeslot seems to have been effective as a way of building audiences; if Jack & Bobby comes back next year, it would be a good candidate for such treatment. (I'll be surprised if it comes back, though.)

The attempt to build a comedy night on Thursday hasn't been very successful, and I'd move Blue Collar TV to join the rest of the comedy shows on Friday. I'd split up the Monday lineup and move Everwood to Thursday, in an attempt to expand the Mon-Wed drama success to a fourth night. (You could do the same thing by splitting the Tuesday dramas, but it's always preferable to keep the established show at the beginning of the night, and Everwood seems a more comfortable 8:00 show than One Tree Hill does.)

I don't expect Fran back, which means there's room for a new sitcom on Friday night, and slots for new 9:00 dramas on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

And finally, UPN:
8:00 One on One
8:30 Cuts
9:00 Girlfriends
9:30 Half and Half
8:00 All of Us
8:30 Eve
9:00 Veronica Mars
8:00 America's Next Top Model
9:00 Kevin Hill
8:00 WWE Smackdown
8:00 Star Trek: Enterprise


Enterprise is gone, and Kevin Hill and All of Us are probably goners, too.

I confess that I've never seen most of these shows -- a couple episodes each of Enterprise and Kevin Hill -- and it feels a bit silly for me to be offering opinions and advice when I'm so laughably removed from the UPN target demographic. This will, of course, not stop me for a second.

Most of what I'd do is programming conventional wisdom kinda stuff. Move Eve back to 8:00, creating a comfy home for a new sitcom between two already popular shows. Move one of the Monday sitcoms -- let's say Cuts -- to Friday at 8, plugging new sitcoms in at 8:30 on Monday and Friday. Add a couple of new dramas in the Kevin Hill and Friday-at-9 slots.

May 05, 2005

TV: playing network programmer (FOX edition)

The current schedule at Fox:

7:00 King of the Hill
7:30 Malcolm in the Middle
8:00 The Simpsons
8:30 Arrested Development
9:00 Family Guy
9:30 American Dad
8:00 Nanny 911
9:00 24
8:00 American Idol
9:00 House
8:00 That 70s Show
8:30 The Simple Life
9:00 American Idol results
9:30 Stacked
8:00 Tru Calling
9:00 The O.C.
8:00 Bernie Mac
8:00 America's Most Wanted
9:00 Cops

We know that Tru Calling won't be back; the trial run of Stacked has not, I think, been impressive enough to earn it a permanent spot in the lineup, and it's hard to imagine that another season can be dredged out of The Simple Life, especially since Paris and Nicole are reportedly no longer on speaking terms.

Generally thought to be on the bubble: Arrested Development, which the public has refused to love as much as the critics want them to, and Bernie Mac, which went through some major scheduling delays this season due to the star's health problems.

Potential trouble spots for Fox include its annual delay in rolling out the new season, due to baseball playoffs. That 70s Show is sure to decline, as both Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace will only be making occasional appearances, and let's face it, ain't no one watching that show for the comic stylings of Mila Kunis. Even the most devoted fans of American Idol -- and I'm among them -- have found the current season lacking in talent and star power compared to previous seasons, and the show needs to find some major talent next time round if it's going to survive. And can 24 find a way to top a season that began with the kidnapping of a Cabinet official and went on to blow Air Force One out of the sky?

On the bright side, Fox is the only network with a stable Saturday night lineup, and its big shows are big enough that even a mild slump would still keep them competitive.

My hunch is that Bernie Mac's ongoing health problems are going to be enough to kill his show; it's hard to keep an audience interested when you don't know how many new episodes you're going to have and when you're going to have them.

And then there's Arrested Development. It seems to me that the biggest problem is scheduling; it's not a good fit with the Sunday cartoons (Malcolm in the Middle is so broadly written and acted that it's practically a live-action cartoon anyway, and it fits in much better). There aren't a lot of places to move it too, though. We'll come back to that in a moment.

But first, a radical proposal. Where is it written that hour-long programs must start on the hour? Imagine the havoc that a network could wreak by running its biggest hit from 8:30 to 9:30, running against whatever hour-long shows the opposition was airing in two different hours. Suppose, for instance, that Fox moved American Idol to 8:30 on Tuesday. Everyone else is running hour-long at 9, so you've increased the chance that your largest audience will stay with you at 9:30, and why not put Arrested Development there?

I'd move House to Fridays at 9; while its success this year certainly owes a lot to its Idol lead-in, I think it's built a big enough audience on its own to survive without Idol (and goodness knows Fox needs to put a proven entity on Friday nights, where it has killed off more new shows than anyone can remember).

The Nanny / 24 combo on Monday is not a very natural fit. I'd make an aggressive move by putting 24 on Sunday nights (bumping Family Guy back to 8:30, and losing the disappointing American Dad, which I don't think survives unless Fox is really interested in keeping Seth McFarlane happy), challenging Desperate Housewives head-on. (I think DH is very likely to fold in its second season as Twin Peaks did.)

That leaves us with a half-hour on Tuesday at 8 for a new sitcom, and an hour each on Monday, Wednesday (either two half-hours, or an hour if we move Idol results to 8:30), Thursday, and Friday. Fill the Monday slot with another hour of the inexpensive reality schlock that Fox loves so dearly; come up with another hip teen soap to go with The O.C. on Thursday; and maybe an irreverent courtroom drama to go with House on Friday. Wednesday? Depends on whether they've got more good comedy pilots or drama pilots.

Tomorrow, we wrap up with WB and UPN.

May 04, 2005

TV: playing network programmer (NBC edition)

The current lineup at NBC:

7:00 Dateline NBC

8:00 The Contender (on hiatus: American Dreams)
9:00 Law and Order: Criminal Intent
10:00 Crossing Jordan
8:00 Fear Factor
9:00 Las Vegas
10:00 Medium
9:00 The Office
9:30 Scrubs
10:00 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
9:00 Revelations (on hiatus: The West Wing)
10:00 Law & Order
8:00 Joey
8:30 Will & Grace
9:00 The Apprentice
10:00 ER
8:00 Dateline NBC
9:00 Third Watch
10:00 Law and Order: Trial by Jury
8:00 movies/specials

There are lots of problems here. Fading shows long past their prime (ER, Will and Grace), shows that never developed the audience they should have (Scrubs), and shows that have been deservedly ignored (Joey). So if you're a fourth-place network, you gotta clear out a lot of the dead wood and start from scratch, right?

Not if you're NBC, apparently. All of the shows I just mentioned are coming back next year. What isn't? Well, Third Watch is finishing its run, and Revelations was only meant to last for six weeks (though it's been successful enough that you know someone's trying to figure out how to bring it back, which will be a particular challenge for a show about the Apocalypse). The only other shows reported to be at risk of cancellation are The Office, American Dreams, Las Vegas, and The Contender, a surprisingly short list for a network in such trouble.

There's hope for some rejuvenation in spots. The Apprentice may draw back some former viewers with the curiosity factor of new host/tycoon Martha Stewart, and the ongoing election storylines seem to be putting new life into TheWest Wing.

But there are just as many potential dangers lurking. Can ER survive the loss of Noah Wyle, the only remaining actor who's been there since the first episode? Doesn't the Law and Order franchise have to collapse someday (and aren't the lackluster reviews for the new Trial by Jury installment a sign that the collapse is near)?

So whatever we do with this lineup feels a bit like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, but here goes: Of the vulnerable shows, I expect Las Vegas and The Contender (which doesn't really seem easily repeatable) to die; American Dreams might get a pickup for mid-season replacement, but won't be part of the fall lineup. The Office will survive, based mainly on its critical success and the perception that it's a prestige project.

And since NBC desperately wants The Office to succeed, they'll move it into the only decent sitcom slot they've got, Thursday at 8:30, moving Will & Grace to 8. (Remember when W&G premiered and everyone was fussing over whether it was too daring and risque for even the 9:30 timeslot? Now it airs in the "family hour" and no one even notices. A sign of progress, I suppose....)

Joey gets moved to the other sitcom night, Tuesday, joining Scrubs and one or two new shows; I think there's a good chance that this spring's trial run of Committed may have done well enough to get it brought back. The logical lineup would be Joey / new show / Scrubs / Committed.

Let's move Medium into that now-vacant Third Watch slot on Friday. That leaves holes on Monday (9-11), Wednesday (8-9) and Sunday (8-9). I'd try sitcoms on Wednesday -- counterprogramming against 60 Minutes and ABC's Lost -- and depending on the quantity and quality of pilots I've got to choose from, maybe on Sunday. Monday gets a new drama at 10 (why is it that no one runs sitcoms in the 10-11 hour?), and maybe a reality/competition companion for Fear Factor at 9.

And then I sit back and pray that every one of those new shows hits big, because that's what it's going to take to get NBC out of the basement.

Tomorrow, we'll look at Fox.

May 03, 2005

TV: American Idol -- Lieber & Stoller/current hits night

Two songs apiece from our would-be Idols tonight, and two separate themes. Round 1 is songs by Lieber & Stoller, and Round 2 is anything from any of this week's Billboard Top 40 charts. The first lesson we learn tonight is that Lieber & Stoller were much more interesting songwriters than anyone working today.

For the most part, each singer's pair of songs were about the same in quality, so I'll deal with them in pairs.
The rundown: Anthony, "Poison Ivy"/"Incomplete" -- it's not a good night for Anthony. His pitch is off, and he seems nervous, especially on the first song. "Poison Ivy" is not a good song choice; Anthony's too smooth to make it work. "Incomplete" suits him much better, but one of the high notes at the end is painfully flat.

Scott, "On Broadway"/"Every Time You Go Away" -- Scott's confidence was already starting to come across as arrogance in his off-stage interview moments, and now that's starting to edge into his performances. "On Broadway" is particularly unpleasant; he's going for a raspy growl that's really not pretty to hear. The second performance is lazy; there are notes at the end of some phrases that he's not even trying to hit correctly. And never again must Scott be allowed to sing a song that includes a reference to "my homies."

Vonzell, "Treat Me Nice"/"When You Tell Me That You Love Me" -- Both performances are a bit dull at the beginning, but end very strongly. The arrangement on the first song is a modern, funky thing that doesn't quite work, but the song's a nice showpiece for Vonzell's personality.

Bo, "Stand By Me"/"Heaven" -- Two excellent performances. There are some very minor pitch problems in "Heaven," but "Stand By Me" is a WOW! moment; the verse is especially fine, and I'm getting goose bumps.

Carrie, "Trouble"/? (they didn't identify this song, and I hadn't heard it) -- The biggest discrepancy between performances of the evening. "Trouble" is terrific, with lots of energy, and Carrie's having a blast. It's maybe a bit hard to buy Carrie singing "I'm evil, evil, evil" -- she's about as evil as a Twinkie -- but she makes it work. The second song is very nicely sung, but Carrie can't quite escape the fact that the song itself is duller than dirt.

For the night: Bo, Carrie, Vonzell, Anthony, Scott.

For the season: Vonzell, Carrie, Bo, Anthony, Scott.

Still, still, stilllllll needing to go home: Scott.

TV: playing network programmer (CBS edition)

CBS sits comfortably at the top of the heap, fighting it out for first with FOX, and they don't need a lot of new shows. Last year, they only introduced three hours of new programming, and none of it worked terribly well; only Listen Up is still on the air, and its chances of coming back next year are iffy.

They are losing a couple of key players this year, though. Everyone Loves Raymond will be gone (and I will be immensely grateful), and JAG finishes up a quiet ten-year run. Generally thought to be at risk of cancellation, in addition to Listen Up, are Joan of Arcadia, Judging Amy, Still Standing, and Yes, Dear.

At the moment, the schedule looks like this:

7:00 60 Minutes
8:00 Cold Case
9:00 Movie
8:00 Still Standing
8:30 Listen Up
9:00 Everyone Loves Raymond
9:30 Two and a Half Men
10:00 CSI: MIami
8:00 NCIS

9:00 The Amazing Race
10:00 Judging Amy
8:00 60 Minutes
9:00 King of Queens
9:30 Yes, Dear
10:00 CSI: New York
8:00 Survivor
9:00 CSI
10:00 Without a Trace
8:00 Joan of Arcadia
9:00 JAG
10:00 Numb3rs
8:00 movies/specials/reruns

Those Wednesday sitcoms seem so out of place sandwiched between 60 Minutes and CSI:NY. Let's move K of Q back to Monday night, and hope that it and Two and a Half Men can provide enough support to build a new night of sitcoms (King at 8, Men at 9, new shows on the half hours).

What to do Wednesday at 9? It's a tough time slot -- Alias and The West Wing both had ratings comebacks this year, and the American Idol results show gets a huge audience. But I think Judging Amy would do reasonably well there; easier to get an audience in a competitive time slot for a show that already has an audience than for something brand new.

I'd keep Joan, too, in its Friday night slot, and try a pair of new dramas at 9 and 10, probably with strong female leads. A female-oriented lineup would be good counterprogramming against ABC's tiring sitcoms and NBC's crime shows.

Numb3rs moves into the old Amy slot on Tuesday nights; it's a better fit with the rest of the night than Amy was. I'm tempted to swap NCIS and The Amazing Race; it seems a shame for Race, which is such a fun show for families to watch together, to be on later than 8; it would probably lose a lot more of its audience to American Idol, though, than NCIS does, so let's leave those two alone.

In summary: Joan and Amy survive; Listen and Standing don't. Two new sitcoms on Monday, two new dramas on Friday, and a little juggling of current shows into new timeslots.

Tomorrow: NBC.

May 02, 2005

BOOKS: How Like an Angel, Margaret Millar (1962)

Joe Quinn finds himself at an isolated religious community in rural California, and is asked by Sister Blessing of the Salvation to go to the town of Chicote and find out if Patrick O'Gorman is still living there. She doesn't want him to contact O'Gorman or deliver a message; she just wants to know if he's there.

He's not, having disappeared under suspicious circumstances some five years earlier. Quinn's curiosity gets the better of him, and he finds himself getting more involved with the case, and the people involved in it, than he had planned.

This is very nice writing, with crisp, believable dialogue and vivid characters. It would be easy (and probably entertaining) for Millar to poke fun at the extreme beliefs of Sister Blessing and her community, but Millar, while recognizing that they are out of the norm, treats them with respect.

Parts of the book are a bit dated, notably the attitude towards homosexuality, which briefly becomes an issue in one subplot. Millar's characters react to the notion as one might expect, given the period, with a mixture of disgust and pity, but it is not as hateful or abusive as it could be, and MIllar is not without compassion for those characters.

The ending, I suspect, is less surprising now than it would have been 40 years ago, Millar's central twist having been used many times since. But it's still effective, and the final surprise is nicely delayed until the very last paragraph of the book.

TV: playing network programmer (ABC edition)

We're coming up on that week when all of the TV networks announce their fall schedules, and over the next week or so, I'm going to do a little guessing about what we might see from each network. Obviously, I don't know much about what new programs they might have in the works, but I can at least look at holes that need to be filled and speculate on the type of thing we might see.

Let's start with ABC. Their current schedule looks like this (there are a few holes this time of year, where shows have flopped, that are filled in on an ad hoc basis with movies, specials, reruns, and the like).

7:00 America's Funniest Home Videos
8:00 Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
9:00 Desperate Housewives
10:00 Grey's Anatomy
8:00 Extreme Makeover: Home Edition: How'd They Do That?
9:00 The Bachelor
10:00 Supernanny
8:00 My Wife & Kids
8:30 George Lopez
9:00 According to Jim
9:30 Rodney
10:00 Blind Justice
8:00 Lost
9:00 Alias
10:00 Eyes
10:00 Prime Time Live
8:00 8 Simple Rules
9:00 Hope & Faith
9:30 Less Than Perfect
10:00 20/20
8:00 The Wonderful World of Disney

On the whole, ABC's in good shape. They're in third place, but it's not an embarassing third. Their new dramas this year have done extraordinarily well, and they're only one or two shows away from competing for the top spot. There is some danger lurking: Dangerous Housewives and Lost both run the risk of being the next Twin Peaks, brilliantly dangling their mysteries for a season, then falling apart in year two.

Monday's shows are all essentially filler, and all will probably disappear, at least for the football season (ABC's last year of Monday Night Football). The Bachelor could survive, but it really does seem to have run its course; How'd They Do That and Supernanny, along with the currently-on-hiatus Wife Swap, probably won't be on the fall schedule, but could easily pop up to fill holes if new shows aren't as successful as hoped.

It seems safe to assume that Rodney won't be back, and I'd be surprised if either Blind Justice or My Wife & Kids returned.

Shows that seem to be on the so-called "bubble:" Eyes, 8 Simple Rules, Less Than Perfect.

Boston Legal is on hiatus, but has been renewed for next season, which brings us to the first problem for ABC's execs: Where to put that show? Grey's Anatomy is doing better on Sunday nights than BL had done, and I don't expect ABC to move Grey's out of that time slot.

I think Legal would pair nicely with Eyes (which has been a bit of a disappointment in the post-Alias slot, but which I think deserves a chance to build an audience) and I'd try that combination from 9-11 on Tuesdays, bumping Jim and George back to the 8-9 hour.

Wednesday needs a new drama that's compatible with Lost and Alias, both J.J. Abrams creations; maybe turn the whole night over to Abrams, and fill the 10 pm slot with the grandpa-grandson private eyes show he's reportedly been working on?

Thursday's a hard night to make any ground on. NBC's shows are slowly sinking, but still strong, and the Martha Stewart version of The Apprentice will likely attract curious viewers who'd given up on the Trump version; CBS dominates the night, and doesn't show any sign of weakness yet. There's not much humor in that 10 pm slot, though, between ER and Without a Trace; maybe this is a place to try Eyes or Boston Legal.

ABC seems determined to keep Friday night a sitcom zone, and I'd expect either Rules or Perfect (but probably not both) to survive along with Hope & Faith, with a pair of new comedies in the 8:30 and 9:30 slots. (If My Wife & Kids does survive, then I'd move one of the three Tuesday comedies to Friday, which means that Rules and Perfect might both be expendable.)

The networks have essentially given up on Saturday nights, and it will probably remain a dumping ground for movies, specials, and reruns.

So, to summarize:

I think Eyes will survive and Blind Justice won't; of My Wife, Rules, and Less Than, at least one dies, probably two. Four hours of new programming: a pair of Friday night sitcoms, a Wednesday 10pm drama, and two hours of something to fill up Thursday; given the current state of the sitcom, probably two hour-long shows.

Tomorrow, we'll look at CBS.