Thursday, April 28, 2011

"The Voice": Better Than "Idol"?

"American Idol" has been king of the reality singing competitions for 10 seasons. Coming this late in the game, a show like "The Voice" seems like it would be yet another copycat, an attempt to cash in on "Idol's" dying gasps. But there is something genuinely fun about this show, a freshness that I did not expect to find in such a stale concept.

The first rounds of "The Voice" are based on a blind audition round, where the coaches - Xtina, Blake Shelton, Cee-Lo and Adam Levine - are judging the contestants based solely on, well, their voice. All of the contestants are chosen ahead of time, avoiding the nonsense bad auditions that plague the first rounds of "Idol" every season. If one of the coaches wants one of the singers on their "team" of 8, they press a button to basically offer a spot on their team to that person.

What I personally love about this concept was that the coaches then have to sell themselves to the contestant, who ultimately gets to choose whose team they get to join if they have had multiple offers. So not only do we get to hear talented singers, we get to see them have a small measure of power over their own destinies. Of course, working with any of the four is a dream come true for most of these artists, so there's really no way to lose - unless nobody turns their chair around, which only happened a couple of times in this first round.

The coaches are a bit of a surprise, too - I expected to like Cee-Lo, and Adam Levine, but wasn't sure if Xtina's diva image would get in the way, and I had never heard of Blake Shelton. But all four of them seemed to really be enjoying themselves, lavishing praise on deserving contestants and playing up the drama in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way. They seem to actually want to nurture the talent of these contestants, to really find the best people and help them make the right connections. And they themselves just feel more connected to the contestants than the much more aloof judging panel on "Idol."

So is it better than "Idol"? Maybe, maybe not. It's hard to compare one episode to ten seasons of talent. But I love that the singers are all talented, and that the coaches/mentors are all passionate about the people they are vying for. That may be difficult in the next round after auditions, when they have to cut their teams in half. And "The Voice" may get a little too Idol-y in the last few rounds, when the final group is chosen and America gets to vote on the winner.

But at the very least, this first round is something fresh and exciting, a new take on the singing competition. The blind auditions mostly ended up being pretty people, sure, but there were a few surprises mixed in for the coaches in terms of look and presentation. If next week is as entertaining, I'm in, at least for the season.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

American Idol: Best Performances of the Past 10 Seasons

"American Idol" is a junk-food show. I know it's not good for me, and a lot of the time I don't even enjoy it, but I can't help but coming back to it, week after week.

There's something uplifting about the idea of talented kids getting a shot at stardom. It speaks to the classic American dream that drives many of us - success, fame, money, power. Yes, most of the contestants from AI are back to normal after their fifteen minutes is up, but even some of the losers of the competition have gone on to have extremely successful careers due in large part to the exposure they got from Idol.

This season has been hit or miss, with a very talented group who has been (a bit boringly) consistent. No Sanjayas this time around, hanging around on the basis of their train-wreck potential. There is real talent in the group that's left, and the judges have found little to criticize. That's one of the weak points of this season, for me - while I've mostly enjoyed Tyler and Lopez and even occasionally Randy as judges, they seem to be there primarily to lavish praise on even the most generic performances.

As I watched last night's top 7 perform, I couldn't help but think that there really hasn't been a star-making moment this year yet. Each of the top group has had some good performances, and some of them have even been great performances, but unlike past seasons, I have yet to hear a performance that makes go, "Wow. That kid deserves to be a star."

So I thought I'd present some of my personal "star moments" from the past seasons. I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with me on which ones made the cut, but these are seven of my favorites, the ones that I've gone back and watched again and again even after the season was over.

#5: Blake Edwards, "You Give Love a Bad Name"
Blake may not have been the best traditional singer on the show, but he knew how to mix things up and keep it unique and interesting. This performance was unexpected, fun and different.

#4: Elliott Yamin, "Moody's Mood for Love"
It took me a few weeks to get into Elliott. He was a funny-looking guy, but when he opened his mouth, all of that melted away into an absolutely gorgeous voice. This was the first moment I realized that. One of the few Idols I've bought music from post-show.

#3: Clay Aiken,
Definitely another case of a big, amazing voice in what could be considered a funny-looking guy. He may have gotten a tad creepier since his season ended, but man, what a voice.

#2: Fantasia Barrino, "Summertime"
What I liked about Fantasia, even though I didn't always love her, was that she really poured herself fully into every performance. This is a fantastic example of that.

#1: Kelly Clarkson, "Stuff Like That There"
The first Idol is still the best, IMHO. This perky, upbeat performance could have been overly cutesy or silly in someone else's hands, but Kelly knocked it out of the water. This was the song that made me think she should win the first season.

Honorable mentions: Adam Lambert's "Mad World," Jennifer Hudson's "Circle of Life," Tamyra Gray's "A House is Not a Home."

I'm sure I've forgotten a few other favorites here. But these are at least a few of the moments that have kept me coming back to Idol. I hope to see another one in the next few weeks from what's left of this year's contestants.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: "Game of Thrones"

My reaction as the first episode of "Game of Thrones" wrapped up?

Holy. Shit. I am going to love this show.

I haven't read the books this series is based on. (Although the first one is sitting on my bookshelf, just begging to be read now.) And I was concerned about getting into an epic and sprawling fantasy series, trying to figure out who's who without having read the hefty volumes this show is based on. I've been burned before. But to my pleasant surprise, while the pilot certainly contained a huge number of characters and stories to keep track of, they managed to present everything in a way that was engaging, providing an intro without being overly clumsy and obvious, and allowed me to follow the story with relative ease.

I expected to have to slog my way through this first episode, trying to learn names and characters and figuring out what was going on where. But I very quickly picked up on who everyone was and their motivations, and that, even more than the sweeping sets and beautiful people, drew me masterfully into the story. I found the women in this story especially compelling - Daenerys, being married off to a savage king to further her brother's aspirations to win back his throne; Arya, the young daughter of a northern lord, fighting against the traditional roles her older sister embraces, preferring archery to embroidery and food fights to flirting with princes; Lady Catelyn, trying desperately to protect her family as her husband chooses to leave and help his king; and the Queen, who was giving me serious Lady MacBeth vibes in addition her creepy incestuous relationship with her pretty-boy twin brother.

Some of the men were pretty interesting, too - in particular, I was interested in Ned Stark's bastard son, Jon, who I would assume from this first episode will play an important role in the coming series, and Tyrion Lannister, the "Imp," is sure to be an interesting character to watch. Daenerys' brother was compelling, in an evil, creepy way; I expect to hate him with a passion. But it was the women of this show who really stood out. Not much good happens to them in the "Game of Thrones" pilot, but from what I've read about this series, I hope to see them come back with a vengeance throughout the season.

I'm sure I'll be looking up the characters' names at least a few times an episode for now, but that doesn't really matter. Their relationships at this point are clear, the story is compelling, and I fully expect that this is quickly going to become a new favorite series. I can't wait to see what happens next week. In the meantime, if you need me, I'll be devouring the first book.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

New Show Review: "The Killing"

Who killed Rosie Larsen?

That is the central question behind AMC's new show, "The Killing." But this series is about so much more than a simple homicide investigation - it's about the people left behind, the impact of a life and the destruction created by a senseless murder. Based on a Danish show, "The Killing" centers around a few groups of people: Rosie's grieving family, the detectives investigating her death, and a mayoral candidate who gets caught in the crossfire when Rosie's body is found in one of his campaign cars. 

The lead detective on the case is Linden, a quiet but competent detective who is supposed to be on her last day when Rosie's body is found. Her plans to move to Sonoma with her fiancee are derailed by Rosie's murder, as she stays behind to find the killer. Mireille Enos plays Linden with a soft confidence. She is good at her job, but not showy. With a firm intelligence she goes about unraveling the investigation, pulling along her intended replacement, an aggressive homicide rookie who has just been transferred from vice. 

Enos is impressive, but the real pull of the show acting-wise is Michelle Forbes as Rosie's mother, Mitch. Forbes embodies Mitch in every way possible, showing her in the pilot to be a loving but somewhat distracted wife and mother, and masterfully descending into devastation as Rosie's fate is revealed. Watching her hold herself underwater to try to understand her daughter's drowning death is horrifying and heartbreaking. Seeing her and her husband (played perfectly by Brent Sexton) react as they try to explain to their young sons what has happened to their sister is devastating. 

"The Killing" is not a procedural, not really. Yes, it centers around a murder investigation, but unlike any of the many "CSI" or "Law and Order" clones on network TV, it doesn't wrap everything in a neat bow in 40 minutes. Being on AMC, a network known for high-caliber shows like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad", it has the luxury of taking its time and really getting into the story. It benefits from a dreary Seattle setting and a stellar cast, and although the investigation is drawn out over the season, each episode so far has offered plenty of fodder to keep the audience compelled until the next Sunday night. I know I plan to be there. 

The fourth episode of "The Killing" airs tomorrow night at 10/9 Central on AMC. The first three full episodes are available on the AMC website, as well as through the usual suspects (iTunes, Amazon, etc.).