Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Idol is dead, and I'm feeling a little Taylor Hicks myself

In case you're wondering when SSTOL's traditional breakdown of the year's American Idol contestants is coming...

...don't hold your breath.

Seriously, this year's Idol class is far and away the weakest in the show's history. That's saying a lot for a series that has foisted such dubious talents as Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais, Carmen "Can't Buy a Tune" Rasmusen, Kellie "Dumb as Two Bags of Silicone" Pickler, and the infamous Sanjaya "Fauxhawk" Malakar on the American public.

Not only is there not a single performer (and I'm using that word loosely) in the AI '09 field whose CD I'd want to hear — never mind buy — but there isn't even one about whom I care enough to write an entire paragraph.

So I'm not gonna.

You're on your own, America.

SwanShadow... out!

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLIII commercial post-mortem

It's been something of an SSTOL tradition to recap the best commercials from the Super Bowl.

But a weird thing happened this year...

The game was actually better than the ads.

That is in part to the credit of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, who delivered a whale of a show (congrats to Coach Mike Tomlin and his crew for the last-minute, come-from-behind victory over a team no one — including your Uncle Swan — thought could even compete with them). It's also a sad commentary on this year's Super Bowl ad crop, which was, to put it politely, lacking.

In fact, before I sat down to review the spots online this morning, only one had insinuated itself into my memory — the truly bizarre ad featuring washed-up celebrities Ed McMahon and MC Hammer. That was memorable not for its persuasive power, but for its sheer breathless lunacy: Hammer and his "gold medallion showing me wearing a gold medallion!" and Big Ed with his gold-plated toilet.

Among the few other highlights:
  • I was entertained — and baffled — by Pepsi's testosterone-fueled spot showing manly men enduring all kinds of physical punishment with a casual "I'm good." (I confess that I don't understand the whole Pepsi Max concept: Diet cola for men? What, too much estrogen in Diet Pepsi?)

  • NBC gave us a clever house ad for its online video service, starring Alec Baldwin in a scenario inspired by Men in Black. (I always knew those Baldwin brothers were aliens.)

  • The most exciting ad of the bunch was Audi's slick, dialogue-free chase sequence with Jason Statham reprising his Transporter film role.

  • The "best storytelling" award goes to's documentary-style take on the life of a nerdy young man who succeeds at everything he attempts, but who can't buy a car without the aid of a certain Web site.

  • Doritos offered a couple of decent spots: the one involving the "magic" crystal ball was funny, and another in which the protagonist's fantasies become reality every time he crunches into a Dorito (a female pedestrian's clothes disappear; an ATM spews cash) was predictable, but well-orchestrated.

  • NBA star Carlos Boozer played Big Brother to a gaggle of cute kids for Not as splashy as most of the ad fodder, but warm, fuzzy, and authentically charming. Best of all, it made a solid selling point about the product — something too many of the high-ticket Super Bowl ads forget to accomplish.

  • And, though I'm not a Conan O'Brien fan, I did chuckle at the goofy Bud Light spot that featured Conan as the reluctant star of an absurd Swedish commercial.
As usual, the Budweiser Clydesdales wore out their welcome — one ad showcasing these handsome animals is fine, but four or five get old quickly. Also as usual, served up a pair of tasteless, sexist trifles designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator (arrested-adolescent males who've been swilling beer all afternoon) and rile up the feminist crusaders.

But enough about the commercials...

It's Boss Time.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cranked up the best Super Bowl halftime since Prince took the stage a few years back. The Boss and Company delivered a fun, upbeat, energetic set, weaving together a couple of classic favorites ("Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run") with the title track from his latest album. (Asked in a pregame interview why he had finally decided to accept the Super Bowl gig after more than a decade of refusing the NFL's invitation, Springsteen was characteristically forthright: "I've got a new record to promote.")

The production pulled out all the stops — fireworks, a five-piece horn section, and a gospel choir for the finale. All the fluff couldn't mask the raw power of Springsteen's music, nor the joy that he and his bandmates (including Clarence Clemons, who worked it out on saxophone and cowbell; guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, looking aged and road-worn; and Bruce's wife Patti Scialfa, who stepped forward for a backing vocal spotlight on the final number) still derive from their music after 35 years.

I'd have gladly ditched all of the fancy advertisements, and just let The Boss play during the commercial breaks.

That's why they don't let me run the show.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Trust Me

Following on the award-winning critical success of AMC's Mad Men, TNT is serving up its own spin on the daily lives of advertising executives in its new series, Trust Me. I checked out the premiere episode the other night, and I have to say that I was surprised and impressed.

Having worked as a freelance advertising copywriter for the past six-plus years, I was curious to see whether Trust Me captured what I believe to be the essential characteristic of the industry: That all advertising people are insane.

And yes, they've got that pretty well nailed down.

In its lead roles, Trust Me casts a pair of actors whose work doesn't usually interest me: Eric McCormack (formerly the gay half of Will and Grace) and Tom Cavanagh (late of Ed, which enjoyed a moderately successful run, and Love Monkey, which didn't). They're a Felix-and-Oscar team of ad creatives: McCormack's Mason McGuire is the graphic artist and the steady, level-headed one; Cavanagh's Conner (who doesn't appear to have another name — the sign on his office door reads simply "Conner") is the copywriter and the wacky, unpredictable one.

When their creative director dies suddenly, Mason is promoted to his position, threatening the delicate balance of his working partnership with Conner. The duo also encounter conflict from Sarah, a newly hired superstar copywriter brought in to shake up the firm — she's played by Monica Potter, who looks as though she'll be even more annoying here than she was on Boston Legal. (In this role, Potter's irritating quality is character-appropriate. When Sarah attempts to persuade her former boss at her previous agency to take her back, he tells her, "I think I'm going to hire someone I don't hate.")

Although I've never worked on staff at a major ad agency, Trust Me accurately reflects the dynamics of most of the agencies I've come to know. Again, that basically means that all ad creatives are nuts. Trust Me plays that angle more directly for humor than does Mad Men, which leans to the dramatic. Specifically, much of the comedy derives from Conner's foibles — he's an only-slightly more mature version of the Tom Hanks character in Big, an overgrown adolescent whose childish behavior is offset by his creative brilliance.

As noted above, I'm not a fan of either Cavanagh or McCormack, but they're well-cast — and ideally matched — here. Their supporting cast, in addition to Potter, includes Griffin Dunne, who improves anything in which he appears, just by showing up. The show's debut script displayed a deft hand, employing that over-the-top comic reality that worked so well in the early seasons of Ally McBeal. (This isn't a David E. Kelley production, but it has some of the flavor.) If the writers can sustain the quality, Trust Me could join Mad Men as a perennial award contender.

Uncle Swan gives Trust Me four tailfeathers out of five. I recommend giving it a look-see.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Ex-Ex-List

I see that CBS has canceled The Ex-List.

This does not surprise me. Although I never watched the program — apparently, I wasn't alone — from the time that I first heard about it, The Ex-List struck me as having perhaps the most limiting premise in the history of television.

Here's the synopsis: A young woman (played by Elizabeth Reaser, whom I recall from a bizarre little film entitled Stay, which I once reviewed for DVD Verdict) visits a psychic to find out whether she will ever meet her soulmate. "You've already met him," says Madame Zenobia. "In fact, you've already dated him."

Thus, our lissome heroine is told that she has only one year to revisit all of the men with whom she has ever hooked up, trying to suss out which reject was really Mr. Right, before she misses her chance at wedded bliss forever.

Being as intelligent as you are, friend reader, I know that you have already divined the pair of inherent obstacles.

Problem the First: If you have any hope at all that your series will last longer than one season, you don't saddle it with a premise that practically screams to be canceled within twelve months.

Problem the Second: Calendar constraints aside, how many seasons could you keep this show on the air before the audience loses all sympathy with the main character?

The average network drama films 22 new episodes each season. If Ms. Ex-List has to reconnect with one former beau each week, that means she's had at least 22 partners by her early 30s (star Reaser is 33). Okay, that's doable. (No pun intended.)

But let's suppose that the producers get lucky (again, no pun intended), and the show survives for Year Two. By the end of the second season, our heroine has racked up (someone please turn off the double entendre machine!) 44 dudes worth of sexual history.

If The Powers That Be gave the series a third year, Reaser's character would be well on her way to becoming the distaff Wilt Chamberlain. CBS would have to start shrink-wrapping the DVD box sets in latex.

Better to quit while you're... oh, never mind.

Then again, how many boy-toys did Kim Cattrall's Samantha toss out of the sack like mucus-sodden Kleenex in all the years that Sex and the City was on?

I think my middle age is showing.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: The Next Food Network Star

Two seasons ago, local restaurant personality Guy Fieri took The Next Food Network Star by storm, winning his own cooking show — the hit Guy's Big Bite — and launching a TV career that soon made him ubiquitous on the cable channel.

Last season, a charisma-challenged field of contestants served up a tainted victor — San Diego soccer mom Amy Finley, who after being voted off returned to the show when another contestant (Joshua "JAG" Garcia) was dismissed for fabricating his culinary and military résumés. Amy's six-episode series, The Gourmet Next Star, boasted all the excitement of drying model cement, and swiftly vanished from the airwaves.

So what does this season's gang of ten tele-chef wannabes look like?
  • Aaron McCargo Jr. is the executive chef at a New Jersey hospital. I've eaten hospital food, and I've seen New Jersey. If either is any indication, I don't hold out much hope for Aaron.

  • Adam Gertler is an aspiring actor and waiter — as though that isn't redundant — who used to own a barbecue joint in Philadelphia. He strikes me as kind of goofy and annoying.

  • If Cory Kahaney's name sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because she's a stand-up comedian who made the finals of Last Comic Standing a few seasons ago. Cory's not laughing now, because she was the first contestant booted off in her latest competitive reality show challenge. Seeya, Cory.

  • Jeffrey Vaden is a caterer who, at 6'5", towers over his fellow contestants. For some reason, he reminds me a little of Geoffrey Holder, the actor from Trinidad who used to do those 7-Up commercials back in the day.

  • Jennifer Cochrane is the executive chef at a pair of restaurants in Rhode Island. Given the size of Rhode Island, those may be the only two restaurants in the entire state. She's working the "suffering single mom" angle way too hard for my taste.

  • Kelsey Nixon lost me the moment she referred to herself in her bio as "Mini Martha Stewart." She's blonde, cheerleader-chirpy, and from Utah, which I believe adds up to another redundancy. She's already had her own cooking show on local television. As far as I'm concerned, that was one Kelsey show too many. The world does not need a mini Martha Stewart. I'm not entirely sure we need the full-sized version.

  • Kevin Roberts, a chef and cookbook author from San Diego, is perhaps the most laid-back contestant in the group. Chalk at least some of that up to his experience as a culinary commentator for a radio station. I find him bland and unremarkable, but his background should help.

  • As far as I'm concerned, restaurateur and former pageant queen Lisa Garza can pack up her attitude and her Louise Brooks hairdo, and boogie on back to Dallas anytime now. She's smug, self-important, and insufferable — all of which helped land her in the bottom two. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Miss Thing.

  • Nipa Bhatt is one of the more interesting options — her specialty is Indian food, and Food Network tends to be lacking in the ethnic cuisine department. She's smart, focused, and confident to a fault, but she might come off as a mite too serious (even grim) for weekly TV.

  • Youngster Shane Lyons — he's only 20, and already a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America — is a former child actor who costarred on Nickelodeon's All That a few years ago. Now he's a caterer in Colorado Springs. Shane broke down in tears during the first evaluation session with the judges. ("There's no crying in cooking!") He's probably had more face time on camera than any contestant except the now-departed Cory, but he'll have to man up if he wants to stick around.
It's hard to pick a single early favorite after the first episode, but if I had to bet, I'd put my money on a Jennifer/Kelsey final. They both have the kind of telegenic, upbeat (read: gratingly perky) personalities that Food Network favors. Time, as the saying goes, will tell.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bring me the head of Brian Dunkleman

Has this been the most tedious American Idol season in history, or what?

When this year's Top Twelve were announced — what seems like a geological epoch ago — I commented that this field seemed like the least interesting in the show's seven-year history.

Things haven't improved since.

But at least we're down to the final three, and that's something. No more false starts by Brooke White, no more dead-fish stares from Kristy Lee Cook, and as of last night, no more agonizingly soporific performances by Jason "I'm Too Sexy for My Dreadlocks" Castro.

Not that what we're left with is all that much better.

Syesha Mercado is the surprise pick in the remaining trio. I didn't expect Syesha, who's been in the bottom tier more consistently than almost anyone else this season, to survive anywhere close to this late in the contest. For my money, she's the most listenable of the three singers left, and she's not hard to look at, either. But she's never shaken her penchant for selecting ill-fitting material to perform, nor has she developed much of an engaging stage personality. As I sit here typing, I can't recall the title of a single song Syesha has sung. That's not a good sign. She'll probably be the next to depart.

David Archuleta — "Archie," as I like to call him — was everyone's early-season favorite to be anointed American Idol #7. The kid does zip for me personally. He sings pretty well, in a high school musical sort of way, but I can't say much else in his favor. He's awkward, uncomfortable to watch, and indefinably creepy in a manner that makes me fear for his household pets. If there's a market for Archie's recordings, I can't imagine of whom that market would consist. He doesn't have boy-band sex appeal, rock star charisma, or Broadway vocal power. As I said at the beginning, though, in this tepid field, I would still not be surprised if he won.

David Cook is, to my mind, the least of the three evils left. Alt-rocker Cook, who has outlasted the other Cook and one of the two other Davids in the Top Twelve, could best be described as Chris Daughtry-lite. I'm not sure why anyone would want Daughtry-lite when the real Daughtry is alive and well and appears to be doing just fine with his career, but there you go. Cook is the most talented of the Big Three, both in vocal skill and in ability to adapt effectively to a variety of material. Were I among the teeming millions who vote each week — and I can assure you that I am not — Cook would be the one whose digits I'd dial.

Looking at and listening to Syesha and the two Davids, I'm stunned that Idol — still the most popular show on television, despite a ratings slump this season — couldn't come up with a more potent final trio. Where's the Kelly Clarkson in this group? The Fantasia Barrino? The Taylor Hicks, for that matter? (Speaking of Taylor, I believe the last time I saw his face on Idol, it was backstage, on the side of a milk carton.)

In most of the show's previous seasons, even the second- and third-place contestants would have performed dervish-like circles around any of these three. Just imagine such Idol also-rans as Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke, Katharine McPhee, or the aforementioned Daughtry competing against this motley crew.

This snooze-inducing contest would already be over.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Your Idol Top Twelve, America

Yeah, yeah, I know... I've usually weighed in on the season's American Idol contestants long before we get down to the Deadly Dozen.

But I've gotta be honest here.

As much as Seacrest and the Gang of Three keep pounding us every week with the proposition that this year's cast is "the most talented ever," I'm just not seeing it. Oh, there's some talent in the bunch, as we'll discuss in a moment, but seriously, this is the most charisma-challenged collection of wannabe Idols since... well... last season, when a freaky kid who couldn't sing a lick ran far deeper into the competition than he ever should have, simply because he was mildly interesting amid a tepid field.

This season, we don't even have Sanjaya to kick around any more.

In Idol's best cycles, it's had drama. Sometimes, that drama derived from a clash of similar styles — as in Season Three, when a trio of massive-voiced R&B divas (LaToya London, eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, and 2007 Academy Award honoree Jennifer Hudson) vied for the crown. At other times, the drama surrounded a coterie of equally likable contestants with disparate, but roughly equal, talents — the triumvirate of Kimberley Locke, Clay Aiken, and ultimate victor Ruben Studdard in Season Two; the four-headed popularity contest between Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin, Katharine McPhee, and winner Taylor Hicks in Season Five.

Alas, no drama tonight.

So far this season, it's tough to build much enthusiasm about any of the hopefuls, each of whom is bland and vanilla in her or his own bland, vanilla way. I can't imagine wanting to download a single, much less an entire album's worth of material, by any performer in the Class of '08.

But since we here at SSTOL never permit overwhelming ennui to stand in the way of blogging, we press ahead. Wiping the sleep gunk from our crusty eyelids, let's review the Top Twelve for Idol Season Seven. We'll take 'em in — oh, what the heck — reverse alphabetical order, so as not to impose upon the (yawn) suspense.

Brooke White. As exciting as her name. A perky blonde Mormon kid from Arizona — with all the thrill potential that impliezzzzz... — Brooke is one of the contestants leveraging the new-for-'08 rule permitting performers to play their own instruments onstage. We've seen her tickle the ivories during Hollywood Week, and strum her way through a downbeat cover of Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" on guitar. What we haven't seen is even a modicum of personality. Brooke can sing just fine, but man, is she boring. Her skills and the Rocky Mountain LDS voting block should keep her in contention for the top five.

Carly Smithson. Irish-born chanteuse Carly is one of several "ringers" in this year's field — contestants who've previously signed recording contracts, and, in Carly's case, recorded at least one major-label album (2001's MCA Records release Ultimate High, recorded under her maiden name Carly Hennessey). (I know — this seems antithetical to Idol's entire "discovering unknown talent" concept. But I just report the facts.) Carly, in fact, passed the Idol audition phase back in Season Five, but was unable to continue in the competition due to visa problems. Not surprisingly, Carly is the most polished performer of the finalists. She'll steamroll her way at least into the top three.

Amanda Overmyer. Perhaps the only real surprise in the Top Twelve, Amanda's a raspy-voiced rocker chick — think Janis Joplin without the heart or nuance, and with a hideous faux-Goth makeover. She really can't sing very well — her rendition of one of my favorite '70s classics, Kansas's "Carry On, Wayward Son," made my eardrums scream for mercy — and her stony-faced demeanor is off-putting, to say the least. Amanda found her niche last week, however, with an acceptable cover of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You." I'll be shocked if she lasts long enough to make the Idol summer tour, which traditionally features the top ten finalists.

Syesha Mercado.
In most seasons, Idol serves up a plethora of female hopefuls who appear to believe they're the next Whitney Houston. This year, there's only one diva: Syesha (it's pronounced Cy-EE-sha). She's got a decent enough voice, but has a penchant for abominable song selection — she growled a hideous version of "Tobacco Road" a couple of weeks back, and delivered an oddly gender-flipped rearrangement of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones." Purely from an aesthetic perspective, I hope Syesha sticks around a while — she's the most attractive of the female contestants, in a year when attractiveness is in short supply — but she'll have to pick more effective material. She's a mid-round elimination at best.

Ramiele Malubay. This year's edition of Season Three's Jasmine Trias, Ramiele is a petite Asian-American girl who'll pick up a lot of what I call the "stuffed animal" vote — she's the cutest and cuddliest member of the cast, and ratchets up her adorability factor by bawling uncontrollably whenever a fellow contestant is eliminated. In her defense, however, Ramiele can also sing, with a startlingly powerful voice encased in so diminutive a package. I wouldn't be at all shocked to see her in the top half of the draw.

Michael Johns. Like Carly, Michael's another of the ringers — he was twice signed to Madonna's record label, albeit without actually releasing an album — and also like Carly, a candidate to be American Idol's first non-American-born Idol (he's an Aussie from Perth, and even bears some slight resemblance to his late homeboy, Heath Ledger). He is, if I'm not mistaken, the oldest-ever Idol finalist at age 29, and he could easily pass for a decade older. He's a talent, but after the Taylor Hicks fiasco of two seasons ago, I suspect that Idol's producers will undermine his chances at every turn. Middle of the pack, most likely.

David Hernandez. One of three Davids in the Top Twelve, David H. is this year's sex-scandal Idol. Prior to his moment in the television spotlight, he worked as a stripper and lap-dance provider at a gay bar in Phoenix — an establishment bearing the none-too-subtle moniker "Dick's Cabaret." Unlike the fabled Frenchie Davis of Season Two, who was booted from the show when news came to light that she had posed nude for a pornographic Web site, David H. has been given a free pass by Idol's producers. He won't last more than a couple of weeks, though — he's not much of a singer, and — surprisingly, given his background — he's not a very captivating performer, either.

Chikezie Eze. The only male soul singer in this season's cast, Chikezie (who, in the manner of Fantasia and Mandisa before him, appears to have deep-sixed his surname somewhere on the way to the finals) seems like a nice fellow. Unfortunately, that affability is all that he has going for him here. His vocal style approximates that of the late Luther Vandross in the later years of that legend's life, but Chikezie doesn't have Luther's ability or charisma. He'll be a candidate for the exit every week until he's gone, which will probably be soon.

Kristy Lee Cook. Yet another ringer: Kristy was signed by BMI Records in 2001. No less a celebrity than the now-notorious Britney Spears showed up for a cameo in Kristy's first music video — a video that earned the country singer from Oregon the nickname "KKKristy" in online forums, as she performs a portion of her number standing in front of a Confederate flag. The second coming of Kellie Pickler — only with even less talent, if you can imagine that's possible — Ms. Cook will likely draw some niche votes from country fans, but not enough to propel her higher than eighth or ninth.

David Cook. The field's most identity-challenged contestant, in that he shares his surname with one of his competitors and his given name with two others. I'll confess that I didn't think much of David C. the first couple of weeks of competition — to me, he sounds pretty much like a dozen other grunge rockers I could name, and a zillion more no one could name — but he impressed me last week with an arrestingly good alt-rock remake of Lionel Richie's "Hello." (I would not have thought it possible to do a listenable alt-rock cover of a Lionel Richie song, but I learn new things all the time.) If David C. can keep pulling that kind of rabbit out of his musical hat, he'll stick around for a few weeks.

Jason Castro. Dreadlocked Jason vaulted from obscurity last week with a gorgeous, sensitive rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the most familiar cover of which was recorded by Jeff Buckley (literally hundreds of other singers have recorded the song also). As with David Cook before him, Jason needs this level of artistry to break loose every week, because before this, I was sneaking a bathroom break every time he stepped on stage.

David Archuleta. Young David A. is problematic — he's an unquestionably talented kid (he also competed, and won, on the revival of Star Search a few years back) who wouldn't appear to have much, if indeed any, potential as a popular recording artist. His is the sort of musical performance ability that would have, in an earlier generation, made him an ideal candidate for The Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney, Justin, and the rest. But unless he's hiding some serious Timberlake in his hip pocket, he'll spend his career singing in cruise ship lounges and theme parks. (Not that that's a bad thing.) I would not be surprised if David A. survived until the final round. I would not even be shocked if he won. I just can't imagine him selling many CDs.

So there you have it, America. Vote early, and vote often. We'll check back in a few weeks to see who's still standing.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLII commercials

At least the game was exciting.

Since the last vestiges of the 49ers dynasty are more than a decade in the rear-view mirror, in recent years I've mostly watched the Super Bowl to check out the commercials.

It's a good thing that Super Bowl Extra-Large Plus Two turned out to be a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire funfest, because this year's Super Bowl ads? Weaker than that Vitamin Water that Shaq the jockey was hawking.

These were the most memorable of a largely forgettable collection:
  • Bud Light: Man Breathes Fire. Any commercial that involves singeing a cat scores in my book. You know how I feel about cats.

  • Tide To Go: Job Interview. For my money, this one did everything an ad is supposed to do: it caught my attention; it stuck in my memory; and most important of all, it made me want to buy the product.

  • Budweiser: Rocky the Clydesdale. Yes, it was cute and hokey, but I loved the horse who finally made the Budweiser coach-pulling team after umpteen attempts, with a little help from his friend the Dalmatian.

  • Planters Nuts: A Dab of Cashew Will Do Ya. A homely woman rocks the pheromone boost she gets from rubbing cashews into her pulse points. This one was all kinds of creepy and weird, but it worked for me.

  • Coca-Cola: Macy's Parade. Three giant balloons get into a fight over a bottle of Coke. Charlie Brown wins. I'm not sure it made me want to slug down a Coke, but it was funny and unique. Plus, it's Charlie Brown, man. Charlie Brown rules.

  • SoBe Life Water: Thriller. Naomi Campbell zombie-dancing with animated lizards to the King of Pop's venerable classic. At least Michael didn't put in an appearance.

  • T-Mobile: Charles Barkley Out-Parties Dwyane Wade. The Round Mound of Rebound still has the magic. Comedy gold.
There were, of course, far more spots that I didn't find amusing or compelling:Wake me up in time for the next Super Bowl. Or better yet, for the Iron Man movie.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, January 28, 2008

Yes, I SAG, and I'm not ashamed

It would have been criminal for pop culture vultures not to watch the Screen Actors Guild Awards last night, if only because it may represent our only taste of Hollywood glitz all spring.

The SAGs received a special dispensation from the striking Writers Guild of America, eliminating picketing that would have prevented WGA-sympathetic actors (pretty much everyone in SAG) from attending, and allowing WGA members to write for the awards show without reprisal. The lack of such a waiver resulted in the cancellation of the Golden Globe ceremony earlier this month, and continues to threaten the Academy Awards.

As entertainment, the SAG Awards (called "Actors," despite the potential for ribald humor were they to be nicknamed "Saggies") usually fall somewhere between the Golden Globes and the Oscars. The SAGs lack the liquor-lubricated club atmosphere of the Globes, while being slightly less self-important and pompous than the Academy Awards. Because all of the SAG recipients are actors — no writing, directing, or technical awards here — most of the presenters and awardees are familiar faces, thus lessening the tedium somewhat. (I'm glad all of the anonymous behind-the-scenes folks get their just due at Oscar time, but I don't especially care to watch them get it.)

The SAG show always begins with several stars facing the camera and delivering brief and (supposedly) humorous summations of their careers, ending with the tagline, "I'm [STATE YOUR NAME], and I'm an actor." Some of the better riffs on this theme came this year from Sally Field ("I was in my first play when I was 12..."), Kyle MacLachlan ("I've ridden giant sandworms and tracked down Laura Palmer's killer..."), and the former Mrs. John Stamos ("I spent three films painted blue... I'm Rebecca Romijn, and I'm a model turned actor"). One of these years, I'd love to see them get a more refreshingly honest admission: "I'm Ben Affleck, and I'm stealing money pretending to be an actor."

None of the results were surprises. The cast of The Sopranos, taking their final collective bow, swept most of the TV honors. Oscar favorites Daniel Day-Lewis, Julie Christie, Javier Bardem, and Ruby Dee snagged the major film nods.

The one puzzle for me was the awarding of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Charles Durning. I mean, yes, the man has been around forever, and he's appeared in roughly half a million films and TV shows over his lengthy career. But was Durning really the most worthy possible recipient? Anyone at SAG ever heard of Nicholson, Streep, DeNiro, or Pacino? Then again, considering Durning's obviously frail condition last evening, maybe those other folks aren't close enough to death's door yet.

Speaking of death, it was nice to see that the show's producers managed to shoehorn the recently departed Heath Ledger into the annual "Everyone Who Died Since Last Year's Show" tribute montage. The Academy Awards has occasionally drawn criticism when a celebrity has passed away within a few days of the program, and the Oscar producers haven't altered the already completed memoriam, forcing the fans of the newly departed to wait an entire year to see their favorite memorialized.

For a year in which awards shows may be slim pickings, I was taken aback to see that more of the stars didn't bust out their most exciting evening wear for the SAGs. Instead, this proved to be a fairly conservative and sedate year for red carpet fashions. Viggo Mortensen outflashed most of the men in his black-with-red-pinstripes tuxedo, which, combined with his scruffy beard, gave him the air of a dissolute English pimp:

On the distaff side, Sandra Oh's strapless parachute affair, with its humongous magenta bow across the chest, probably drew the most quizzical stares:

Now let's see whether the WGA strike will resolve in time for the 80th Oscar show.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: American Gladiators

Last night, I caught the much-anticipated (around my desk, at least) premiere of NBC's newly revived American Gladiators.

For those of you who slept through the 1990s, the original American Gladiators (1989-1996) was a syndicated competition-reality series in which average men and women (albeit average men and women in better-than-average physical condition) pitted themselves in a variety of events against a team of colorfully nicknamed "gladiators." The male and female contestants who racked up the most points each week moved on to the next round of competition later in the season. Ultimately, the show crowned victorious champions in the final episode each season.

The 2008 version of American Gladiators — one of a spate of "unscripted" shows spawned by the Writers Guild of America strike — restores most of the elements that made the original a hit: contestants with interesting backstories (last night's competitors included a rehabilitative physician, a professional skateboarder, a New York City firefighter, and a female Iraq War veteran), events that make for rousing viewing (several of which are upgrades of staples from the old series), and of course, an all-new crew of Gladiators.

As in the previous version of the show, the Gladiators bear catchy one-word monikers (i.e., Crush, Justice, Venom). At least a couple of the names are nostalgic throwbacks (I recall a Siren and a Titan from the old days — in fact, the original Siren was played by a deaf athlete named Shelley Beattie), even though all of the personnel are new. In typical 21st-century fashion, the 2008 Gladiators tend to be bigger (all of the male Gladiators are 6'2" or taller, and I'm thinking that several members of the team — both men and women — would be hard-pressed to pass a test for anabolic steroids) and louder (Wolf and Toa, in particular, will soon wear out the welcome of their lycanthropic howls and Maori war chants, respectively) than their predecessors.

And there are at least a couple of semi-familiar faces in the bunch: Mike O'Hearn, a championship bodybuilder (a four-time Mr. Universe) and well-known male model (you'll see his muscular likeness on the covers of dozens of romance novels), plays Titan; Gina Carano, a martial artist (and daughter of former NFL quarterback Glenn Carano) who appeared as one of the trainers on Oxygen's women-boxing show Fight Girls, plays Crush.

I was pleased to see that the gameplay is as exciting as ever. Most of the old games have been given a fresh twist (Joust, in which a contestant and Gladiator attempt to knock one another off tiny pedestals with pugil sticks, is now played above a pool of water), and the new games are intriguing. I especially like Earthquake, in which the competitor and Gladiator grapple on a swinging Plexiglas platform high above the arena floor (and yet another pool of water). The end game, a torturous obstacle course called the Eliminator, has been ratcheted up to an extreme level that leaves the contestants nearly comatose from exhaustion by the time they crash through the foam-brick wall that marks the finish line.

My main problem with the revival is that the episodes feel padded, mostly with useless yammering by commentators Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali. (What's the matter, NBC? Did you lose Mike Adamle's phone number since the last Olympics?) I'm certain that the original series managed to cram more events into each show than the four we're getting here. Memo to NBC: Less yak, more smack.

The new show also seems to be trying too hard to make "personalities" out of both the competitors and the Gladiators — especially the aforementioned Wolf and Toa, and the Valkyrie-themed female Gladiator who's saddled with the amusing nickname Hellga. Back in the day, fan favorites — male Gladiators Gemini (former NFL player Michael Horton), Laser (stuntman Jim Starr, who gained additional notoriety when it was revealed that he was married to porn star Candie Evans) and Nitro (who eventually moved into the AG commentator's chair under his real name, Dan Clark), and female Gladiators Zap (bodybuilder Raye Hollitt, who enjoyed a modest mainstream acting career) and Lace (actress Marisa Paré, who parlayed her Gladiator fame into a Playboy pictorial) — just naturally evolved as the seasons progressed.

Is American Gladiators high art? Of course not. Is it schlock TV? Well, sure. Is it a half-step removed from professional wrestling? In style and tone, perhaps, although the competition is real (as are the contestants) and the outcomes are not — so far as I'm aware — scripted.

But is it entertaining enough to keep me tuning in on Monday nights, at least until something better comes along? You bet.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Welcome to Fall Schedule Hell

In my next life, I'm going to be a television programming executive.

So far as I can determine, it's a job that requires no talent, no foresight, no sensitivity, and no ability to either predict or produce successful results.

In other words, it's right up my alley.

Should you doubt my assessment, friend reader, please consider that some television programming executive greenlighted each of the following series for the upcoming fall season. Now, granted, I haven't seen any of the pilots for these shows. But I'm a reasonably intelligent individual — with the Jeopardy! tapes to prove it — and I can tell you that not a single one of these series has any chance of being a hit. Much less, of being any good.

Just attempt to imagine, if you will, any sane and perceptive person wanting to impose this dreck on his or her fragile psyche:
  • Journeyman (NBC). It's billed as "a romantic mystery-drama" about a newspaper reporter who travels through time. They lost me at "romantic mystery-drama," which is a good thing, because otherwise I'd have been laughing hysterically at the point when they mentioned "travels through time." This must be about the guy who used to write the paper that showed up on Kyle Chandler's doorstep every week on Early Edition.

  • Cavemen (ABC). The hypersensitive Neanderthals from the Geico insurance commercials get their own situation comedy. Has everyone at ABC already forgotten the Max Headroom debacle? Oh, that's right — the people running ABC today were in kindergarten when Max Headroom was on.

  • Kid Nation (CBS). In this reality series, a motley collection of 40 preteen and early adolescent kids are turned loose to create their own miniature society in a New Mexico ghost town. I know what you're thinking — I read Lord of the Flies, too. I wouldn't want to be the fat kid with glasses in this show.

  • Moonlight (CBS). An immortal vampire plays detective. I didn't watch this when it was called Forever Knight or Angel, and I certainly won't be watching it now. Why don't TV vampires ever go into more logical professions — say, meatcutting, or vascular surgery?

  • Viva Laughlin (CBS). X-Men star Hugh Jackman is responsible for this bizarre bit of business. It's a "musical drama" about a casino in Laughlin, Nevada (what, you thought Biloxi, maybe?), in which the characters will frequently pause the action to lip-synch pop tunes. Two words: Cop Rock. Not even Wolverine has the power to save this one.

  • Chuck (NBC). Given that the Peacock Network is going all Heroes, all the time this fall (seriously — all but one of NBC's new series revolves around a science fiction or fantasy element), I should not be surprised that 30 Rock scheduled this red-headed step-child of WarGames and D.A.R.Y.L. It's about a youthful computer geek who gets a Super-Pentium processor lodged in his skull and turns into a one-man counterintelligence agency. Yeah, that'll be good.

  • Reaper (The CW). A guy discovers that his parents sold his soul to Satan, so he has to run around capturing escapees from Hell. (Some of whom, apparently, have taken up jobs in television programming.) Of course, it's on The CW, so no one will ever even know it was on.

  • The Return of Jezebel James (FOX). Two sisters who hate each other reconnect when one becomes a birth surrogate for the other. Aside from its seemingly limited premise — once the baby comes, where does the story go from there? — this offering does have two positive factors in its favor: costars Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose, who could make a knitting bee seem fun.

  • The Bionic Woman (NBC). Some jokes write themselves.
Now, I ask you: Don't you suppose you and I could devise better programming than this over a sushi lunch some afternoon? I think we ought at least to try.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Open All Night

Anyone familiar with my television viewing habits knows that I'm not much of a sitcom fan. I don't believe I've watched a situation comedy with any regularity since The Cosby Show was in its heyday. Even then, I didn't watch often.

There is, however, one sitcom that retains a cherished corner in my recollection, more than 25 years after it last aired. Even then, the fond memories are due more to the show's theme song — which still echoes in my cranium a quarter-century later — than to the program itself.

The show in question was Open All Night, a short-lived laffer from the early 1980s. As one might surmise from the title, Open All Night took place in a 24-hour convenience market (called "the 364 Store" because it was open every day except Christmas).

George Dzundza — later Detective Max Greevey in the debut season of Law & Order — starred as hapless Gordon Feester, the cranky yet lovable shlub who managed the store. Indie film goddess Susan Tyrrell played Gordon's airhead wife Gretchen, while talented character actor Sam Whipple (who passed away from cancer a few years ago, at the too-young age of 41) often stole the show with dry humor as Gretchen's slacker son Terry. Ex-NFL star Bubba Smith — then a hot TV property thanks to a popular series of Miller Lite beer commercials that paired him with Dick Butkus — played Robin, Gordon's assistant manager who ran the graveyard shift.

Open All Night derived most of its comedy from the motley assortment of folks who wandered into the 264 Store during the wee hours. If you've ever found yourself in a 7-11 after the local taverns lock down, you'll get the idea. David Letterman (as himself) dropped by during one memorable episode, to promote his new late night talk show. Even Cassandra Peterson — today admired by millions of horny fanboys as horror film hostess Elvira — showed up, albeit without sporting either her vampire queen drag or her bountiful cleavage. Where better for the future Mistress of the Dark to make a guest appearance than on a show called Open All Night?

As I recall, the show started off well with several hilarious early episodes, then began to peter out toward the end of its only season. But then, as I noted previously, there was that theme song. (Remember theme songs? They used to be my favorite feature of television. When I was a kid, I used to tape theme music straight from the TV speakers with my little reel-to-reel recorder, then splice in clips of myself in Casey Kasem mode introducing each selection.)

Many series back in the day attempted to summarize the gist of the show in the opening montage. None accomplished the feat as completely or as cleverly as Open All Night, which combined a catchy, piano-driven 1940s-style vocal hook with lyrics that burrowed into the human consciousness like deer ticks, never to be dislodged. Imagine the Andrews Sisters mated with Shel Silverstein, after guzzling a tankful of espresso.

Click the image below, and you can sing along yourself:

This is the story of Gordon Feester
Born in Ohio the day before Easter
Had a normal childhood, did okay in school
Graduated from Columbus High in 1962
Now he's open all night, open all night

Went away to college but he didn't do that good
So the Army drafted him and he got sent to Fort Hood
Served a two-year hitch, never went overseas
Spent a year peeling potatoes and a year copping Z's
Now he's open all night, open all night

Then old Gordon sort of drifted this way and that
At times he had some money, other times he was flat
He always seemed to manage, though he never saved a cent
Sure, it was a struggle, but he always paid the rent
Now he's open all night (yeah!), open all night

That takes us up to 1974
And now old Gordon runs a grocery store
With a wife named Gretchen who hangs around the house
And her son named Terry by a previous spouse
Gordon sits behind the counter, in hock up to his nose
In a dither, in a pickle, in a store that's never closed
And he's open all night, open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...

I wonder what George Dzundza's up to these days. Or nights, as the case may be.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl ads

For those of us mortals who look forward to the Super Bowl more eagerly for the commercials than for the game, Super Bowl Extra-Large-Plus-One came something of a cropper. This wasn't exactly a stellar year for the ad agencies, who annually bring out the big guns for the Big Game. I'd forgotten most of the spots already by the time I sat down to compose this post. Lucky for you, I took notes.

As an advertising copywriter, I tend to view the splashier commercials with a gimlet eye. A commercial should have as its primary aim two goals: (1) imbedding the sponsor's brand inescapably in the mind of the viewer, and (2) fostering an intense desire to purchase the sponsor's product or service. An ad that accomplishes either goal has earned its money. One that does both is golden.

Sad to say, most of the Super Bowl spots focus on a third objective: entertainment. The problem is that entertainment is the job of programming -- in this case, the football game. If all an ad does is entertain the audience, without selling either the brand or the product or both, it might as well be a show, and not an ad. Few things are a more pointless waste of money and creativity than a clever commercial that everyone in America talks about, but no one can recall who the advertiser was or what product they were selling. You might as well set three million dollars (production cost plus airtime) on fire.

So let's examine a random sampling of Super Bowl commercials using the SwanShadow Scale of Advertising Effectiveness (a maximum of ten tailfeathers possible):

Pizza Hut: Jessica Simpson bolts the red carpet for some Cheesy Bites.
I have no love for Jessica Simpson — an unattractive, talent-free bimbo, in my not-so-humble estimation — nor for Pizza Hut, which serves the nastiest pizza of any of the major chains. This ad, however, does a good job of reinforcing the brand, and making the product seem appealing. Seven tailfeathers.

Blockbuster: The Blockbuster bunny and gerbil attempt to order videos using a mouse. The furry kind.
One of the more memorable and effective spots of the day. The mouse gag makes a strong mental connection with the online service. More importantly, the spot breaks away from the humor to solidify the sales pitch, rather than trying to make the gimmick do all the heavy lifting. Nine tailfeathers.

Doritos: A guy and girl meet disastrously cute.
Clever idea — this was an amateur submission generated by a "make your own Doritos ad" contest. For me, though, as clever as the piece is, its value is ruined by all of the violent misfortune. Unless I'm selling insurance or auto body repairs, I don't want people associating my product with car crashes. Six tailfeathers.

Sierra Mist: When you can seize the soft drink from my hand, Grasshopper, you will be ready to leave. Most of the blogosphere is raving about the other Sierra Mist spot starring comedians Michael Ian Black and Jim Gaffigan, in which Black's middle manager fires Gaffigan's bizarrely coiffured employee. For me, that spot was more about the sight gags than the soda. This one, with Black playing a martial arts teacher and Gaffigan his hyperaggressive student, works better at selling the product, while still bringing the funny. Eight tailfeathers. (The "hair" ad only gets six.)

Snickers: Two macho men share an inadvertent kiss over a Snickers bar. This was probably the funniest ad of the day. It did not, however, make me want to eat a Snickers bar. Instead, it made me want to hurl. Not because of the implicit homoeroticism (borrowing heavily from a famous bit in the John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles), but because the idea of having food in my mouth that has been in someone else's (I don't care whose) turns my stomach. I can't imagine anyone viewing this ad and thinking, "I sure would like a Snickers right about now." Three tailfeathers.

Bud Light: Carlos Mencia turns an ESL class into a beer commercial.
Alcohol ads are always a valuable test for me, since I don't drink. This spot makes effective use of humor — and ethnic humor at that; tricky in any venue — in reinforcing the Bud Light brand. There's a reason why Anheuser-Busch, which I'm told by my beer-drinking associates makes a mediocre product at best, sells so much beer: Their ads consistently underscore their brand identity, to the degree that even a teetotaler such as myself knows who they are. (I always wonder: If Budweiser is the King of Beers, is Bud Light the Queen of Beers?) Eight feathers. (Another Bud Light spot starring Mencia lost the branding message in the punch line. Only four tailfeathers for that one.) Jungle lemmings.
Who thought this would be a good idea? A noisy, chaotic commercial featuring office workers in a jungle environment being attacked by unseen marauders, ending with the entire cast (or CGI versions of same) running off a gigantic cliff. I'm not sure from watching this ad what the product is, or what I'm supposed to think about it — other than that it has something to do with blowdarts and mass suicide. Yuck. One tailfeather... but just barely.

Emerald Nuts: Robert Goulet messes with your stuff.
Easily the most peculiar ad of Super Bowl Sunday — although less inflammatory than the Snickers spot — this one is just plain freaky. It didn't make me want to buy nuts, only to think that the creatives at Emerald's agency of record are nuts. Two tailfeathers, for sheer audacity.

Nationwide Insurance: "Federline! Fries!"
We rip on K-Fed quite frequently here at SSTOL, but this commercial is actually well done. I would have made the connection between the humorous body of the ad and the sales pitch more cohesive, but all in all, this was worth the money Nationwide spent on it, for the pop culture buzz alone. Seven tailfeathers — would have been eight, but KJ used to work for Nationwide, and she's still a mite peeved.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Swan Tunes In: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Saddled with tons of advance buzz and the most ungainly title in prime time — was there a reason, Aaron Sorkin, why the show couldn't have simply been dubbed Studio 60? — Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip suffers in comparison with both its predebut reputation and its storied predecessor, Sorkin's political drama The West Wing.

Which is why I say watch it now, because it may not last for long. Even with Sorkin's considerable juice behind it.

Studio 60 is a behind-the-scenes look at a live network sketch comedy series (titled, not surprisingly, Studio 60) that couldn't be a more obvious reference to Saturday Night Live if it tried. (Oddly, NBC has two shows this fall with this exact premise. Tina Fey's 30 Rock plays more like a sitcom, while Studio 60 is a drama with ample comedic overtones and 100% less Alec Baldwin.)

Here's the show in a nutshell. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford play, respectively, Matt Albie and Danny Tripp, a writer-producer duo who quit Studio 60 four years ago, and have just been rehired by the network's new entertainment honcho (Jordan McDeere, played by Amanda Peet) to save the faltering show after the previous producer (a first-episode cameo by Judd Hirsch) goes all Howard Beale on the air one Friday night. Matt and Danny have to resurrect Studio 60 in the face of (a) a network chairman who hates them (a role played to oily perfection by Steven Weber), (b) a trio of opinionated and ego-driven stars (played by Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, and Nathan Corddry), (c) the pair of "talentless hacks" who head the writing staff (Evan Handler and Carlos Jacott), and (d) angry sponsors and affiliates who despise the show's often politically incorrect irreverence.

If you were a regular West Wing viewer, you'll recognize Sorkin's signature style all over Studio 60: the huge cast, the machine-gun dialogue, the wry political commentary. Unlike The West Wing, which at least in its early seasons crackled with urgency and narrative force, Studio 60 feels peculiarly flat.

The problem isn't with the cast. I didn't realize, not having been a Friends fan, that Matthew Perry was this talented an actor — he commands the screen every second he's on camera. Everyone else — Whitford and Weber especially — is at least decent, though Peet (whom I've enjoyed in other venues) seems miscast as a high-powered executive, and Sorkin hasn't yet found much for some of the other standout performers (i.e., Hughley and Timothy Busfield, who plays the fictional Studio 60's director) to do.

No, the problem with Studio 60 is also its greatest strength: Aaron Sorkin. So far, the show's creator is writing every episode himself, and it feels as though he's distracted. This is especially true during the brief on-air flashes we're shown of the fictional Studio 60 — it's painfully unfunny. (I suspect that's the real reason the show's in trouble.)

I like Sorkin's work, and I like Studio 60's cast and concept. Given all of the hype NBC has poured into the series, I suspect they'll give it a relatively long leash. But unless the show finds its footing fast, the ratings may completely tank before Sorkin and company figure out exactly what it is they're trying to do.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Swan Tunes In: Shark

Aside from a 10 p.m. timeslot and a one-word, five-letter title beginning with "S," CBS' new legal drama Shark — the sophomore episode of which airs tonight — shares one more feature in common with Smith, another new crime show on the Eye Network. Both series showcase lead actors better known from their appearances in feature films than for their small-screen work.

Unlike Smith, however, which surrounds headliner Ray Liotta with a superlative, familiar-face cast and a taut, crackling storyline, Shark is pretty much James Woods and not much else.

Unless costar Jeri Ryan offers you two additional reasons to watch.

In Shark, Woods plays Sebastian Stark (and if you can't figure out what his nickname is, you're just not paying attention), a legendary defense attorney who decides to change sides after a client he helped acquit reoffends in violent fashion. Taking control of the Los Angeles District Attorney's newly formed High Profile Cases unit, the Shark assembles a flotilla of eager young prosecutors and proceeds to school them (snicker) in the underhanded legal chicanery that earned him millions.

The main problem with the series, judging by last week's pilot episode (directed by firebrand filmmaker Spike Lee), is that the show's producers (led by Ron Howard's frequent collaborator, Brian Grazer) aren't content to let the Shark be a shark. They're going overboard to soften his rapacious persona by surrounding him with attractive young lawyers and a cute teenage daughter.

Why does that make sense? If I want to see a warm, cuddly TV lawyer, I'll catch a Matlock rerun. My whole reason for switching on Shark is to watch James Woods — one of this generation's most compelling screen presences — at his cutthroat, vicious, antiheroic best. If CBS insists on filing down the Shark's teeth, there won't be much here to hold anyone's interest.

Except, of course, for Jeri Ryan.

My advice to Grazer and company: Back-bench the kids, and let Woods really cut loose. Otherwise, I won't be swimming with Shark by midseason.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Swan Tunes In: Heroes

Over at The Nexus of Improbability, the Mysterious Cloaked Figure — MCF to his friends throughout the blogosphere — recently created fantastical renderings of his favorite bloggers as comic book heroes. Needless to say (a stupid turn of phrase, really — if it doesn't need saying, why say it?), I was both honored and charmed to be included in this artistic enterprise.

Behold SwanShadow, the superhero:

Although I haven't appeared nearly this svelte since, say, the Carter administration, I admire the way that MCF captured my essential heroic qualities: stealth, inscrutability, sharp wit, and a fondness for immense bladed weaponry. It's as though the man read my mind. Or saw my knife collection. Of course, he is a Mysterious Cloaked Figure...

Speaking of superheroes, the show I've anticipated most this fall television season premiered last evening. In case you've been off-world for the past two months and have somehow missed the incessant previews for it, Heroes is the dark, twisty tale of a group of otherwise unconnected people who suddenly discover that they possess superhuman powers.

[WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW. If you TiVo'd Heroes last night (or plan to catch the rebroadcast this evening) and don't want key elements of the storyline revealed, bid us farewell for now, then drop back around after you've watched the show.]

Wisely, the series creators chose not to introduce every member of the show's Legion of Super-Heroes in the first one-hour episode. So far, the cast of characters shapes up like this:
  • Character: Hiro Nakamura
    Performer: Masi Oka (Scrubs)
    Occupation: Office worker
    Abilities: The most powerful of the characters, Hiro can manipulate time and space, enabling him to alter the flow of time and to teleport over incredible distances (in the first episode, he transmits himself from a Tokyo subway to New York's Times Square).

  • Character: Claire Bennet
    Performer: Hayden Panettiere (Racing Stripes, Ice Princess)
    Occupation: High school student and cheerleader
    Abilities: Has a healing factor that enables her to recover immediately from any injury, no matter how severe. (Think Wolverine, only without the claws.) She also appears to be impervious to pain.

  • Character: Niki Sanders
    Performer: Ali Larter (Legally Blonde, the Final Destination films)
    Occupation: Webcam stripper (doesn't every show need one?) and single mother to child prodigy Micah (Noah Gray-Cabey)
    Abilities: Hard to tell at this point. Niki has a dual, Jekyll-and-Hyde persona, the hidden half of which appears to be violent in temperament and superhumanly strong. What we don't yet know is whether the visible Niki shares the same body with this invisible persona, or perhaps projects the persona in an astral form. In other words, she may be Dr. Strange, or she may be the Hulk. Time will tell.

  • Character: Peter Petrelli
    Performer: Milo Ventimiglia (Gilmore Girls)
    Occupation: Home care nurse
    Abilities: Not what he thinks at first. For most of the first episode, Peter believes he can fly. In fact, his power is an empathic connection with his older brother Nathan, who actually can fly.

  • Character: Nathan Petrelli
    Performer: Adrian Pasdar (Profit, Mysterious Ways)
    Occupation: Politician
    Abilities: He's the Petrelli sibling who can fly, though he doesn't know it until he has to save his brother, who walks off a rooftop thinking that he's the one who can fly.

  • Character: Isaac Mendez
    Performer: Santiago Cabrera (Empire)
    Occupation: Artist
    Abilities: Experiences precognitive visions that enable him to paint pictures of events before they occur. I'm hopeful that at some point he'll paint the following week's California Super Lotto drawing, or the finish line of Friday's fifth race at Golden Gate Fields.
Although they don't make their debut appearances until future episodes, this random collective of superfolks will eventually include:
  • Character: Matt Parkman
    Performer: Greg Grunberg (Alias)
    Occupation: Police officer
    Abilities: Telepathy

  • Character: D. L. Hawkins
    Performer: Leonard Roberts (Drumline)
    Occupation: Incarcerated felon
    Abilities: Phasing through solid matter
Tying the group together are Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy), a genetic researcher from India whose late father may have held the key to these superhuman manifestations, and Simone Devereaux (Tawny Cypress — one of the coolest names in show business, right up there with Kimber Rickabaugh), a beautiful young woman with personal connections to several of the other characters.

Based upon the first episode, I'm pleased with the development of the series thus far. All of the characters are intriguing in their various ways, and the creators have built a nice sense of mystery into the show by not displaying all of the surprises at once. We know just enough about the protagonists and their powers to want to learn more about them. And, as noted earlier, it was a smart move not to cram all of the intros into the first installment.

A caveat: Heroes, though comic book-influenced, is not kid stuff. In the first show alone, we witness several horrifically violent incidents, most of them involving the indestructible Claire, who tests her newfound talents by (a) hurling herself face-first off a grain elevator, earning herself a dislocated shoulder and compound rib fractures; (b) running into a burning warehouse, setting herself on fire in the process; and (c) plunging her hand into a garbage disposal while the device is in operation, mangling said appendage in gruesome fashion.

Remember, children, superheroes are professionals. Don't try these stunts at home.

Heroes gave me more than enough reason in Hour One to keep it on my Monday night schedule. I recommend that viewers who love the heroic fantasy genre (and sport strong stomachs) check it out — better sooner than later, as I suspect the show will become more difficult to follow for those who join the narrative in progress.

Don't make me have to whip out my katana on you.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Swan Tunes In: Smith

There was a time when, in my infancy as a pop culture-devouring tadpole, that I felt compelled to sample every new series when the fall television season began. Those days are long gone. For several reasons, not the least of which is that I don't any longer have either the time or the patience to invest. (Another is that I've learned to better identify — without actually viewing it — the programming that simply isn't going to appeal to my sensibilities. For example, I don't enjoy sitcoms, so I don't bother with them.)

Still, when the new network offerings debut, I immediately develop a mental checklist of the shows I want to try out at least once. As these random taste-tests yield results, I'll share them here.

Last night, CBS presented ("with limited commercial interruption") the premiere episode of Smith, a stark and seductive crime drama headlined by Ray Liotta (who, every time I see him, still makes me think of his eerie portrayal of Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack). Liotta plays Robert "Bobby" Stevens, a master thief who's sort of the dark side of George Clooney's Danny Ocean from Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's [Insert Number Here] films. In every episode, Bobby and his coterie of high-tech pilferers pull off — or, I'm guessing, in some instances fail to pull off — a major heist, while juggling civilian lives and family responsibilities.

Liotta is buttressed by a supporting cast as stellar as any on the tube:
  • Virginia (Sideways) Madsen is Bobby's long-suffering wife Hope, who herself is a paroled felon and a recovering drug addict.

  • Simon (The Guardian) Baker is Jeff, the triggerman in Bobby's gang. As we learn in his introductory scene in the pilot episode, Jeff has a bit of a problem with anger management: Two hardcases shoo him off a private Hawaiian beach during an afternoon of surfing, and Jeff rewards them by shooting them both in the head with a high-powered rifle.

  • Jonny Lee (Trainspotting) Miller is Tom, the more reasonable yin to Jeff's loose-cannon yang. In a scene reminiscent of (and perhaps an homage to) the opening of Ocean's Eleven, Tom walks out of prison after being a guest of the state and finds his old partner Jeff awaiting him in a sweet ride.

  • Amy (Varsity Blues) Smart is Annie, the stereotypical stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold who acts as the decoy and token feminine pulchritude for the crew. Annie and Tom are a couple, celebrating the renewal of their relationship following Tom's penitentiary stint by becoming the newest inductees into the Mile High Club.

  • Franky G is Joe, the team's wheelman and mechanic — essentially a reprise of the role Mr. G played in The Italian Job.

  • Shohreh (House of Sand and Fog) Aghdashloo is Charlie, the mysterious figure who arranges assignments for Bobby and company. No, she doesn't communicate from a speaker phone, and no, she doesn't sound at all like John Forsythe.
As would be expected from the personnel, the performances in Smith are spot-on. For the benefit of the small screen, Liotta reins in his occasional over-the-top tendencies and just lets his natural charisma take over. Madsen, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, is quietly luminous in what could prove to be the most thankless role in the cast. Baker and Miller do a nice job of playing against type — the safe and easy route would have been to assign each the other's role. The rest of the cast is equally fine.

The challenge for Smith will be to keep the scripts at the same high level as the acting. Constructing a complicated heist can be an exercise in cleverness when you only need to do it once every few years for a motion picture. The same thing week after week could rapidly exhaust the show's freshness potential, unless the writers can invent other directions in which to take the storylines. Already, it looks as though the plan is to stir in an element of The Fugitive, with a pair of FBI agents on the trail of the gang of thieves led by the unknown mastermind the Feds code-name "Smith."

Fortunately, there's solid potential for long-term success here. Clearly, the tightrope relationship between Bobby and Hope — who takes a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to her husband's nefarious activities — will be a highlight of the series, offering opportunity for Liotta and Madsen to strut their stuff. The rest of the regular characters have been provided adequate backstory to make them rounded and realistic — if not terribly likable — people with complex, interesting lives beyond crime.

That likability factor may be a tough nut for the show to crack, though. No one in Smith is a good guy. These are bad people doing bad business, and at least in the first episode, the show doesn't flinch from that violent reality. We see the series regulars threaten, injure, and even kill people — up close and personal — during the commission of their crimes. (A scene in which Smart's character coolly blasts an annoying woman bystander in the chest with a Tazer shot icicles down the back of my neck.) Unpleasant, unheroic lead characters can be a hard sell in series television. (Just ask Dabney Coleman.) Viewers have to be willing to open their living rooms to these folks week after week, without feeling the need for a shower afterward. Can Liotta and company pull that off?

Smith's pilot episode bought enough of my goodwill to warrant a few more viewings. If you like the Ocean's... films, and can stand more of the same only with less humor and no Clooney, give Smith a look.

Labels: ,