Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cashmere Mafia/Lipstick Jungle - Men, Nannies, (and Dr. Melfi!)


It's no fun to be a successful professional woman in Manhattan. The ladies of Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle seem to bounce from relationship trouble to career hiccups with never a moment to enjoy what they've achieved. The melodrama factor probably won't be dialed down anytime soon; that said, which show does a better job detailing the world these women live in?

On Cashmere Mafia, the characters' offices function as little more than another location for events to unfold. Mia (Lucy Liu) lands a job as a magazine publisher in the pilot but hasn't had many work related storylines since then. This week she arrives at the office to find the place buzzing with news that her ex-fiance Jack (Tom Everett Scott) has landed a comparable position at a rival company. Everyone assumes Mia will be freaked, but she takes the news calmly and even meets Jack for a fence-mending drink. Mia has another purpose in mind: now that the relationship has ended she wants the couple's "sex tape" back. When Mia and Caitlin go to Jack's apartment to reclaim the tape (actually a DVD), the discovery that Jack has a also kept a DVD of Mia's birthday party suggests that she might not be quite as over him as she thought. A confrontation with Jack's current girlfriend (a snarky newscaster) doesn't help matters, but it isn't until Jack comes over and a night together ensues that Mia comes to the brink of letting Jack back into her life.

But of course Jack is only interested in Mia because they're now on equal career footing, and Mia's having none of the hypocrisy. I'd love to see Mia or one of the other Cashmere ladies with a man who's more than an accessory, but I'm not holding my breath. The divorce of Juliet and Davis turns nasty this week, as Davis tries to get his wife out of their apartment. The best marriage in the group belongs to Zoe and Eric, but he's never around. And of course the other relationship that went down the tubes this week was that of Caitlin and Alicia. The now pregnant Alicia reconnects with her ex-girlfriend and dumps Caitlin, oblivious to the fact that her ex just showed up when Alicia had something she wanted.

Last week I wrote that the pilot of Lipstick Jungle paid more attention to what the characters did at work every day than Cashmere Mafia usually does. That held true in the second episode, which I actually enjoyed more than the pilot. Gone were the lectures about how hard it is for women in the workplace.Of course what goes on in a typical Lipstick episode may not be any more realistic, as evidence consider last night's efforts by Nico to land a young member of the Royal Family for a sexy photo shoot for her magazine. Nico, we're given to understand, has been given new confidence from her affair with the younger Kirby and goes over the head of her boss in pitching the concept for the shoot. The gamble pays off, but Nico may have made an enemy in her boss (Julian Sands, much more interesting than the snooty Brit publisher character in Cashmere).

Most of the rest of the episode was devoted to a novel written by an ex-nanny of Wendy's (Brooke Shields) in which endy is portrayed as a vain an absent mother. The novel is to be published by a rival (a brassy Lorraine Bracco) with a grudge who sends paparazzi photos of Wendy to the tabloids. The novel and the publisher aren't as interesting as the fact that some revelations in the book came from Wendy's husband (Paul Blackthorne). I was expecting the revelation of an affair, but was relieved to learn that Wendy's husband only opened his mouth out of frustration after an unexpected business trip forced the cancellation of their child's birthday party. Look for more issues involving status in the Healy marriage in future episodes. I haven't mentioned fashion designer Victory (who is now working out of her house) because her romance with a billionaire is the least well developed of the three characters' storylines.

This round goes to Lipstick Jungle, with its emotional specificity and willingness to let its women be harried. (Note how little time the Lipstick women spend together as opposed to the Cashmere Mafiosi) If it's fluff you want, why not the best?


"Y'ever eat deer jerky?" - American Idol

For those of you who have eaten deer jerky, you know it to be salty and difficult to chew and swallow. This is not unlike American Idol. So far this season, we’ve been repeatedly told how this year has the most talent ever, but I’m still waiting to see it. Now it’s early, and we’re weeding out the lesser talent, but normally by this point in a season, I’ve found a favorite. I’ve found someone that is either likable or talented, or both, but so far I’m just tuning in, not really cheering for anyone. Hopefully, someone will step and win me over in Hollywood. For these Hollywood auditions, I’ve decided to break down the contestants as I watch them live (aka tivo’d), so that my initial, raw, reactions come out. If Paula, Randy and Simon must judge on the spot, then I must. It’s only fair. Now let’s get to it.

The show gears up with Seacrest robotically going through his intros and we don’t have any side stories about the rednecks from the sticks who have never flown before, so we can assume that this year’s contestants are far worldlier than the likes of Bucky Covington.

The biggest highlight of this year’s Hollywood auditions is that the rules have changed. Take a moment, prepare yourselves: the contestants can use instruments if they choose. Earth shattering adjustment, I know.

Simon also points out that the 164 will either make it into the top fifty immediately, or they must come back to sing the last day, where those left will “sing for their lives, and it's gonna be a bloodbath.” Nothing like referring to the tears of wanna-be singers as a bloodbath. A bit morbid. A bit over the top. Now that’s the Idol I’ve been missing.

Brooke White opts to play keyboards while singing "Beautiful". I’d toss her out, but let's wait for the judges’ reactions: Simon really likes her. He compares her to Carly Simon. And they all love her. She’s through. If nothing else, shouldn’t they just bury the first one up just to let the others know they mean business?

Lorena Pinot from the Miami auditions is horrible singing Shaina Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” Oddly enough, so do I after that painful kick to the balls.

Amy Flynn tries to hit her big note and is surprised by how awful it sounds. Now she knows how we feel. Take a seat, Amy.

Leo Marlowe gets Simon’s best comment so far: "You have the stage presence of a flea."

Simon begins to hate the keyboards, and the instruments in general. The new rule is backfiring already. This does not bode well Jake Mellema, whose drum kit is being wheeled out for his version of “Hooked on a Feeling”. This is horrible, who do you think you are, Jake, Phil Collins? Simon, per usual, sums it up perfectly: "nothing redeeming except that we stopped it early."

I begin to think the judgs are being soft when they put David Hernandez through. He's good, but he's no American Idol. I'm not sold yet. Simon compliments that he's very comfortable up there. I think these guys are being too easy.

Amanda Overmyer steps up next with her version of Light My Fire by The Doors, and I must say, I really like this version. I cannot believe I'm falling for Crazy Hair Lady. Each year, one contestant steals thunder, and votes, with their hair. Nadia Turner did it first in Season Four, and last year there was no escaping Sanjaya’s locks. Randy loves it. Paula loves. Amanda’s in.

And now we’ve got the I-Forget-the-Words montage to “Stuck in the Middle with You."

Josiah Leming, from Atlanta, is up next. We all remember him, living in his car, going “wherever the wind blows.” Oh my god, this sounds HORRIBLE. Josiah tries to hit falsetto. Dude, go back to your car. No wonder you're sleeping there. Randy and Paula love it…I'm shocked. Simon says this is the one he's going to remember. I am utterly shocked.

Ramiele Malubay is a little Asian with a big talent, which is the opposite of Paul Kim, who was like Yao Ming, but sang like Tattoo.

Kyle Ensley steps up, and Simon walks out on him. That was easy enough.

Now groups of ten will be called out to sing a few seconds of a capella, so, according to Simon, "It's do or die."

Amy Flynn, who earlier learned not to shout into the mic, is practicing “Love Will Bring You Back” with her vocal coach. That’s right, she brought her vocal coach. When she takes the stage, she sounds harsh. Really harsh. Nothing will bring me back to listening to you, Amy.

What I like about Jeffrey Lampkins is not just that he’s 300 pound black dude, but that he’s a 300 pound black dude who’s got no problem singing about “pecan pie and chocolate swirl.” It’s fitting, and he jumps like a maniac when he makes it through.

David Archuleta, a mere 16 years old, steps up with “Heaven” by Bryan Adams. He actually sounds good for a kid. I like it, but you can see the ceiling on him. He’s only going to get so far, and I’ll say it won’t be as far as Paris Bennett in Season Five.

Kyle Ensley, the debate teamer that Simon walked out on the day before, goes with “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban. I thought this was a Better Midler song, but whatever. Wrong again. Kyle does really well with the song, Simon apologizes for walking out, and they put him through. There’s a lot of Kevin Covais in Kyle. He’s got potential.

Michael Johns, an Aussie, is up next with Bohemian Rhapsody. On “Mama,” I can tell he's got it. He delivers a great showing, never pushing too hard on the high notes. Man, takes me back to Wayne’s World.

Carly Smithson made it through in Season 5, but alas, this Irish lassie had Visa problems and couldn’t continue on. Singing “Alone,” the song that Carrie Underwood brought to Idol fame, is a huge mistake. Bad song choice for me. I hate it. Annnnnnd, all three judges like it.

Josiah is last to go. He explains how hard it is to choose from a pack of 200 songs. He's crying, crumpling, defeated. They are building him up to lose, making him look like he’s unprepared and sleep deprived. He takes the stage, thanks the band, and asks them to take a seat. Pretty big risk. He sings Stand by Me, “because I hear it in my head.” As he starts, I can’t help but think he wishes he had the band now to cover that voice of his. What’s up with this British singing accent? It’s really awkward. Simon nails it: “if you're going to dismiss the band, you better be ready to bring it.” Despite all admitting they didn’t like it, they all give him a yes. And now he's crying. Again.

Now we’re down to the top 50 and the judges will knocked that down to 24. 12 guys, 12 girls.

The top 24 show starts off with shameless Jumper plug. Hayden Christensen and Seacrest are atop the great pyramids. Gotta love Fox.

The actual elimination show is horrifically boring. Contestants are called, they ride an elevator up to the judges’ room, they walk across a dramatically large room, and they are put through, or sent home.

So without further adieu, ladies and gentlemen, your American Idol top 24!

Alaina Whitaker – I don’t remember her.

Alexandrea Lushington – Cool Bond Girl name.

Amanda Overmyer – Unique raspy voice, a Janis Joplin throwback, but most importantly, crazy hair. Do not underestimate how far this can take her.

Amy Jean Davis – Again, a contestant I don’t remember.

Asia’h Epperson – pronounced like “Asia”, so the ‘h are just for style points really. Asia’h is actually really good, and sounds like a pop singer, plus, she’s gotten Simon’s endorsement already.

Brooke White – Never seen an Rated R movie. I think she’ll hang around for a bit, a top six female.

Carly Smithson – A shoe in for top six with the luck of the Irish on her side.

Chikezie Eze – “Inglewood, Inglewood always up to no good.”

Colton David Berry – Completely forgettable. He’ll be out in two weeks.

Danny Noriega – He’s a little gay guy, and he’s fierce, but he’s no Christian from Project Runway.

David Archuleta – This 16 year old will be a fan favorite, and the judges seem to have taken to him as well.

David Cook – He’s going to get the Daughtry comparison continually, but I actually like David.

David Hernandez – He’s a bit soft for my liking, but a good voice and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the top 6.

Garrett Haley – Who is this guy? We’ve never seen him before, but I like that he lists both Steve Perry and the Backstreet Boys as his musical influences. That should be interesting.

Jason Castro – Another guy we’ve seen very little of. He’s got dreads: could he be the first to go with a Reggae style? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Jason Yeager – Boring.

Joanne Borgella – This former plus-size model got past Simon without any Mandisa or Frenchie jokes. Quite a good start.

Kady Malloy – Again, we’ve got another contestant that I don’t think we’ve seen. The producers have snuck a few past us. I get the feeling they are going to advance far, these newbies.

Kristy Lee Cook – Not only do I love her quote—“rope it, ride it, wrestle it, cowgirl it”—but she’s also got the three names going for her. She’s my redneck favorite.

Luke Menard – Again, stranger.

Michael Johns – I dig the Aussie. I think he can do well. The accent will get him bonus votes with female voters.

Ramiele Malubay – Definite a pop singer. I think she’s a real cotender.

Robbie Carrico – I actually grew up with a Robbie Carrico, so I’m a big fan. Granted, it’s not the same guy, but nonetheless, I feel close to him.

Syesha Mercado – I don’t think it’s a good sign that she lost her voice during Hollywood. This is a long competition, and if you’re a singer without a voice, what are you really?

So there they are. No big surprises and I’m ever so thankful that Josiah got relegated back to living in his car. That dude would have really gotten on my nerves.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Somebody Told Me: Brief thoughts on Xiu Xiu's Women As Lovers

Xiu Xiu has been utilizing the same brand of weirdo, post-punk influenced dream-pop for years. Only so many people have been kind enough to notice, however. On Women as Lovers, the group's sixth LP, Jamie Stewart just may have found a way for his brainchild to both appease established fans and, perhaps, reel in some new ones.

It's a "brave new world" after all, and musical stigmas just aren't what they used to be. Xiu Xiu's meandering style structure and modern classical dabblings can play much wider now than they could have, say, six years ago. Do I know why? Absolutely not. But I do believe it to be true. Add this to the fact that Women as Lovers is simultaneously Stewart's most relatable account (save for maybe Fabulous Muscles), filled with creeping truisms and darkly veiled smirks, and Women As Lovers may prove to be Xiu Xiu's most successful work to date.

It's not that there are many curve balls thrown here in regards to Xiu Xiu's overall appeal or style, but Women as Lovers quite delicately pours on some extra layers to the richness of their sound, making the experience downright luxurious. And it is within this refined, rejuvinated identity that Women As Lovers find its urgency. This is a surprisingly addictive listen.


"Do you believe Satan walks the earth in a fleshly form?": Two weeks of The Wire

(Hey, guys. I've been falling behind because of the Blog-a-thon, but I'm going to try to get pieces on In Treatment and Breaking Bad up sometime soon. -- ed.)

I think it's interesting that the fifth season of The Wire is so concerned with the price of fiction, with the way that fiction makes unrealistic promises that we can never see fulfilled. It's most interesting because The Wire is obviously a fictional account of a city falling into ruin, but it's also interesting because this is the most blatantly fictional season of The Wire yet. Brazen and satirical, the show makes fewer and fewer of its trademark concessions to realism as the season wanders on, and that's, perhaps, because the show has had its characters realize fiction is as good a way to dull the pain as any, until its lies catch up with you and you are subsumed.

The Wire has always leaned toward the "drama" half of the docudrama occasion (I realize others have already said it, but the Hamsterdam experiment was a blatantly fictional creation), but its concessions to being more like real life have always elevated it a bit more than it deserved to be elevated in terms of veracity in the minds of its most ardent fans (present company included). The Wire isn't really what life is like, not quite, but it comes close enough to what real life FEELS like that our minds fill in the gaps. And that's why plot points like Hamsterdam or the fake serial killer can jump out and assault us so.

Yet, at the same time, don't you think that's exactly what David Simon wants to do to us?

Before season five was even written, Simon was fond of telling people that the fifth season would be about the media and why we've never learned about the things we saw in the first four seasons of the show. It sounded pretty incredible, yet it doesn't quite match what we've seen in the first six episodes, where the newspaper storyline doesn't take the lead position that, say, the school storyline did in season four. But I think Simon was telling the truth about this season. The simple reason we never learn about the world The Wire presents is because fiction, even fiction that aspires to come close to realism like The Wire, is so much more comfortable of a way to confront such things than non-fiction will ever be. Confrontation with the utter failure of American to care for some of its weakest won't sell you papers (though it'll give you good stump speech).

This, of course, is not a terribly new notion, but it's impressive to see all of the characters confronted by the power of fiction in one way or another, be it because of McNulty's lies or because of Omar building up his legend on the streets or because of Marlo trying to smooth talk his way into power. Fiction is inextricably intertwined with truth in all of our lives, even in all of these fictional lives. Fiction is what we use to tell ourselves that everything is just dandy.

Even the newspaper editors, those bastions of non-fiction, long for fiction in a way. They keep asking to see the "Dickensian" in everything, when it's obvious that Dickens' novels were not deeply true documents (just look at what happened to poor Randy, the closest thing this show has had to a Dickensian character). Someone like Scott can come up with something that is true and good and right (his Iraq War vet story), but the lure of fiction is too strong. A drug it is.

The Wire, of course, is one of the few shows out there that argues that everything ISN'T just dandy, and in its final season, it's offering the thesis that we haven't realized this simply because we prefer fictions. Like The Wire.

I realize that's not a ton to write about two weeks of this incredibly dense show, but the plot recaps are everywhere around the Internet, and this is what I'm feeling most strongly about the show at this point. Hopefully, we'll get to something meatier next week.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

'One Tree Hill': More fun than a punch in the face

The moment we've all been waiting for on One Tree Hill has finally happened. Someone punched Kevin Federline in the face. Unfortunately, besides that pleasant turn of events not much else happened on this week's surprisingly slow episode.

Well, nothing happened...except Lucas's proposal to Lindsey! With what looks like Peyton's ring! A proposal which came immediately after Peyton confessed her love for Lucas and they made out like bunnies!

I'm not sure what Lucas is thinking here, but I have a feeling this isn't going to end well for dear Lindsey.

Read the rest of the article here.


"Yeah, that sounds like something I'm going to need to raise with my boss" - Jericho

If there has been anything close to a life-changing experience in my time writing about television, it was the moment when what I thought was an unsurprisingly CBS decision to cancel Jericho turned into me getting swept up into a fan movement unlike any we've ever seen. Jericho fans have been incredibly good to me at Cultural Learnings, but I'll be flat out honest: I never really cared for the show that much. There was just something about its first season that had me bolting before the season ended. But, out of loyalty to fans and out of interest, I'm back into the swing of things for the show's seven-episode second season.

It's hard to really gauge the relative quality of the episode considering all of these elements, to be entirely honest with you - there is no question that Jericho has not entered the upper echelon of television drama with its new reconstruction storyline (Which doesn't quite reach Battlestar Galactica levels of contemporary allegory), but there's nothing here to make it unwatchable by any means. In fact, some of its elements remain extremely compelling, and although it doesn't quite live up to them there are some neat elements in play on a broader thematic scale. I actually think that the hullabaloo surround the series has been effective in one sense: beyond my critical sensibilities, I'm finding myself being sucked in easier than ever.

For the full review of "Reconstruction," click here.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

"Who are we to argue with taller ghost Walt?": Lost

The new, fourth-season version of Lost, stripped down and angry, as if it has something to prove, is a much more consistent show (so far) than Lost before. Every episode moves with a sense of purpose that had previously been missing in early episodes of prior seasons, and even the flashbacks (back again this week, in order to reveal the backgrounds of the gang on the freighter) seem tied directly in to everything. But if the show is relentless now, it's reached a point where it's almost all plot, and there's no room for the occasionally clumsy stabs at poetry that the show made in its first three seasons (and I'm willing to trade all of the Bai Ling flashbacks in the world for things like that shot of Sun standing alone in the ocean from season one). I'm still not sure how I feel about this tradeoff, but this week's episode (which I apologize for getting to late) makes about as good a case as anything for jettisoning other things to the wayside and just getting on with the business of hurtling toward an endpoint. This was a crazy fun episode, chock-full of plot points, character interactions and answered questions, to the point where I feel sort of silly for quibbling at all.

The most significant answers we got in the episode had to do with the crew of the freighter, gathered by Abbadon as some sort of super-elite squad o' death. Of course, the obvious question stems from why, exactly, Abbadon would need a crew consisting of a physicist, an anthropologist, a pilot and a guy who talks to the dead (or, maybe, sees versions of them from the past or future). The need for the now-dead Naomi (as the muscle) is sort of apparent, as Abbadon clearly knew there would be hazards out there on the island, but the need for, say, a physicist is not immediately clear, and it's the tease-y kind of puzzle that works so well dancing around the edges of Lost's central mysteries.

The scenes where we find out just what the freighter four were up to before they came to Lost island have the potency of season one flashbacks, even as I wanted a LITTLE more room for them to breathe (though I'm not sure I should complain about that, as the old Lost would have very slowly doled out this information over the course of half a season -- given the choice, I prefer this method). My favorite flash was that of Charlotte, out there in the desert finding the body of a polar bear wearing some sort of Dharma branding (and, of course, there can't be any coincidence that her name is, technically, C.S. Lewis), but I also liked that oddly creepy scene where Miles took the money and confronted the ghost (which we never saw -- unlike Charlie's "ghost" last week). I also liked the way the show has conceived of Miles, as someone who speaks sarcastically to the living and dead alike. I'm sick of ooey-gooey psychics on TV, so I enjoyed the presence of one that seemed as if he really did spend all of his time talking to the dead.

All four of the gang on the freighter don't seem terribly surprised that there were Oceanic survivors, even though the world at large was told there were. We learned Lapidus was not surprised because he was supposed to be on the plane that day, but we've yet to learn why Miles or Charlotte seem unsurprised or just why the sight of the plane on the bottom of the ocean so moved Faraday, to the point where he seemed completely inconsolable.

The on-island action didn't really accomplish all that much, but at least it moved like a rocket, and it was filled with moments that were nifty little callbacks to previous seasons or allowed the characters a few brief moments of humor. The best thing that knowing an end date has given to Lost is that it now moves with a sort of swaggering confidence -- not that of a show that knows it's a hit but that of a show that has something to tell us or, at least, something to fool us with. The show broke out the fan favorites this week, in lieu of last week's more emotional episode, including Sawyer's nicknames and Locke's bizarre connection to the island. There were even cool callbacks to prior episodes (like with Locke revealing he didn't have a kidney -- finally a reason for that flashback!). Brian Vaughan and Drew Goddard are probably the two best writers on the Lost staff for calling back to little bits of continuity and making them seem like part of a whole, and this episode proved the two could work well together.

That said, I'm still not sure if this relentless forward movement is everything I want out of this show. It's nothing concrete yet, but the swaggering confidence, as awesome as it is, seems to have left some of the clumsy earnestness by the wayside. Now, granted, clumsy earnestness isn't always what you want out of something like this, but it always felt sort of charming coming out of Lost. Lost has gained much in the way of momentum, but I do worry about what it's left behind.

Not all that much though.


“You have soft hands for a man, Don!” – The Adventures of Pete & Pete

The Adventures of Pete & Pete kicks off its second season with a bang, literally, when Little Pete pits a humidifier against a dehumidifier to explosive results. From there, it’s classic P&P, complete with Little Pete sticking it to the man, Dad getting caught up in a petty contest and Big Pete helping his brother out in-between his narrating duties.

Little Pete deciding to buck his being grounded by tunneling out through the basement is done really well. It’s fun to see the show take on such a tired cliché, but more importantly it’s a clever way to show Little Pete’s gritty determination. It leads to all sorts of great moments too. The description of Little Pete’s methodology is great (dynamite!), so is the dramatic breaking through the surface, Lady Liberty in hand. But I’d have to say my favorite part is when Big Pete has to find ways to hide all the dug-up dirt – I thought taking up pottery was a nice touch.

Meanwhile, the tension between Little Pete and Dad keeps the drama at the right level. We still feel for Little Pete when he’s grounded for a month, but Dad still remains sympathetic. And it all turns around after a rather inspired segment where Dad is at the 4th of July picnic and is surrounded by reminders of Little Pete. From there, we get a cute enough scene where they patch things together where Little Pete says all the wrong things, but with all the right intentions behind them.

Unfortunately, the competition between Dad and his neighbor over their lawns was a bit dull. We’ve basically seen this before. It’s not all that different from King of the Road and even the gags about using high-tech surveillance equipment were basically cribbed directly from the old half-hour special Apocalypse Pete (which had the bonus of Steve Buscemi playing Ellen’s father!).

This is also the introduction of Nona F. Mecklenberg. This episode is proof that Michelle Trachtenberg has never been a very good actress (something that I’m sure all you Buffy fans can agree with). Moreover, Nona simply is not established as that interesting of a character. There are some cute touches, like her covering up her new house with pictures of her old one and her plan to change her middle name from Frances to Frank or Forklift, but she’s otherwise fairly bland. Not too exciting for somebody who SPOILER ALERT will replace Artie in the title sequence.

But all in all, it’s a good episode. If we were to place it head-to-head against King of the Road, it’d be easy to see how much the cast and crew have improved after finishing a whole season. Their stories have become sharper and more ambitious. Things are still a little clunky, but it’s almost by design – we couldn’t have P&P losing its ragged glory.