Sunday, December 31, 2006

8 Things I Loved in 2006

8 30 Rock • 30 Rock sealed its status as NBC's best sitcom in years with the episode in which network exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin at his smarmy, alpha male best) sets head comedy skit show writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) up on a date with "Tom," who turns out to be a chick. Meanwhile, in a series of poker games, Donaghy tries to crack over-eager page Kevin (Jack McBrayer), whose constant perkiness equals a perfect poker face and, according to Donaghy, the threat of world domination.

7 Fundamental • The ninth Pet Shop Boys album didn't seem on any level to match the buzz that preceded its release, but it's a grower, one of those albums whose many layers of beauty only become apparent with repeated listenings. Essential for fans of sophisticated pop/electronica.

6 Vodka • Even better than popcorn as an entertainment supplement.

5 Kidnapped • Poor NBC: The network delivers a bevy of high-quality programs in its new season and still can't crawl out of the cellar. This kidnapping drama shouldn't have been one-third as compelling as it was, but a superb cast, labyrinthine plot and cinematic production made this a must-see that was unjustly canceled early.

4 Battleground from Nightmares & Dreamscapes • TNT showed a quality adaptation of a Stephen King story is still possible, an achievement that continually eludes ABC's efforts to translate his work. This take on one of King's best short stories, in which an assassin finds himself attacked by toy soldiers, was one of the most skillfully crafted hours of television in 2006. Tragically, all of the other installments were grade-A crap.

3 I've Got a Secret • GSN, formerly the Game Show Network, proved it can deliver a high-quality game show with this revival, which had a pitch-perfect retro vibe, an engaging and capable panel and host (Bil Dwyer), and interesting guests. Though I can take or leave most panel shows, this had me tuning in nightly. Although the show is still on the schedule, GSN then reconfirmed its lack of taste by renewing the awful, brain-dead Chain Reaction instead of the smart Secret.

2 Dexter • Edging past Kidnapped as my favorite drama to debut this year, Dexter deviated from Jeff Lindsay's excellent novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter just enough to keep readers well in the dark. A blood spatter expert who rubs out other killers, Dexter is the new Hannibal Lecter, an intriguing villain-hero who, in his way, is making the world a better place. The last few episodes were second only to Battlestar Galactica in masterful suspense in 2006. Good news for devotees: Showtime renewed the show for a second dozen episodes, and Lindsay's third novel in the series is due in August.

1 Battlestar Galactica • I'm a slave to this show as Baltar is a slave to the whims of sultry, seductive, silver-hearted Number Six. With peaks such as Pegasus and Epiphanies, the second season of the best show on television put together an incomparable string of episodes juggling major threads such as the demotion of Adama, Roslyn's cancer and the fate of Sharon's half-toaster baby. Give this show some Emmys, please.

// Previously //
8 Things I Loved in 2005

Sunday, December 24, 2006

TV: Indentity

• Identity is a game of snap judgments. Here's one: It stinks.

Genre: Game show
Host: Penn Jillette
Verdict: &&

Hobbled by its host, format and that tired old money tree, Identity is out in three quick strikes. NBC gave it the kind of full-week December launch that worked so well for Deal or no Deal, and the show may be back if the ratings are deemed acceptable. Based on the first batch of shows, the network's resources would be better spent elsewhere. In Identity, a contestant faces a dozen individuals who must be linked to various identities — alligator wrestler, crime scene investigator, jockey, streetwalker, etc. — to win the top prize of $500,000. I expected this game to have some questioning element in the vein of What's My Line? or any number of the old panel shows, but it's merely a matter of selecting based on the available visual cues, which isn't much beyond the way a person is dressed or carries herself. I imagine the producers thought the mental game of deduction would be entertaining, but it's about as exciting as watching a couple of kids playing the board game Guess Who, of which Identity reminds me. Not bored yet? Consider that the game relies on the passé money tree and lifelines (a free miss, consult the experts, and narrow it down to three) progression that has been over since the first couple of post-Millionaire wannabes. As for Penn Jillette, his voice makes me think of a professional wrestler, and his emceeing could use a touch of magic.

DVD: The Wicker Man (2006)

• Nicolas Cage tries to crack a secretive clan of pagan chicks.

Genres: Thriller, mystery, horror (but not really), remake
DVD released: Dec. 19, 2006
Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Kate Beahan, Ellen Burstyn
Verdict: &&&

See the review of the theatrical release here. Despite the critical mauling, I still maintain that this remake is a fun little mind-freak and better than the average horror movie of the week (although this is far more a mystery-thriller than it is horror). On second viewing, I still feel the opening scene of this pagan island mystery doesn't tie in convincingly, and the climax, though strong, might be even more effective with less explanatory dialogue — why tell us what has become painfully apparent? // DVD notes // The disc contains two versions of the movie — the theatrical cut and an alternate version. The DVD box trumpets a "shocking alternate ending," but it is neither shocking nor alternate — it's really an extended version that shows a bit that you only hear in the theatrical version during the particularly violent part of the scene. With the other extras being the trailer and commentaries, this adds up to quite a disappointment. On a side note, I was hoping the re-release of the original would show up at my local DVD emporium, but no such luck. Guess I'll have to buy it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

DVD: An Inconvenient Truth

• The former V.P. delivers a sobering wake-up call.

Genre: Documentary
DVD released: Nov. 20, 2006
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Al Gore, the planet
Verdict: &&&&

It's hard to believe that the man who tells the absorbing planet-in-peril story of An Inconvenient Truth was the presidential candidate who droned through speeches about lock boxes. In the six years since, he has found his voice, a compelling gravitas that eluded the man who used to be the next president. An Inconvenient Truth is perhaps the most important thing he will accomplish, and it might never have happened had the Supreme Court elected him rather than the White House's current occupant, whose name is never uttered in this film. That's important because, as Gore notes, global warming is a moral issue, not a political one: The choices are to do the right thing or suffer the dire consequences. The movie consists of the multimedia presentation that he muses he's probably given a thousand times. In theory, it ought to be as flat as his lock box campaign speeches, but there's an urgency to the facts that grabs the viewer by the throat and does not relent. It encompasses those topics you expect — Hurricane Katrina, record high temperatures, emissions from automobiles — and many I didn't know about, such as softening of the permafrost in Alaska, melting in Greenland and Antarctica, shrinking of the coral reef waters, and the drying up of the Amazon. It carries its own weight, but director Davis Guggenheim brings heart to the movie through interwoven personal, confessional asides by Gore. Think he doesn't understand why some business interests work to plant doubts in the public by consistently referring to global warming as "theory"? Listen to him speak about his family's involvement in tobacco farming and his sister's death of lung cancer. These interludes effectively reinforce the notion that this is not a matter of Republican against Democrat, tree-huggers versus rich executives, or theory versus science, but of family, virtue and, ultimately, our very existence. // DVD notes // Extras include a 30-minute update on developments since the movie was made, plus commentaries, a making-of, and the music video for Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up."

DVD: The Devil Wears Prada

• Handbag humor. Can guys watch it?

Genres: Comedy, fashion, adaptation
DVD released: Dec. 12, 2006
Director: David Frankel
Cast: Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Adrian Grenier, Simon Baker
Verdict: &&&

Which came first, The Devil Wears Prada, based on a novel by Lauren Wiesberger, or the Ugly Betty, ABC's hit based on a popular telenovela? Or is the bigger question really this: Can a guy watch this movie? The answer to the latter question is yes, though it is far more likely to please the girlfriend than the guy. On a certain level, it's a fairly straightforward fish out of water, she's in over her head kind of tale as aspiring journalist Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) stumbles into the job of assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the power broker in the fashion industry as editor of Runway magazine. Sachs finds she has to set aside her pride and personal life to hang onto her job in the cutthroat world of fashion. While Hathaway is sweet as the innocent thrown to the wolves, it's Streep who makes the movie in an icy turn as a bitch on top of her empire. She is cold, condescending and utterly believable. My favorite moment comes in a scene in which Sachs lets out a disapproving giggle as Priestly is choosing between two belts of seemingly indistinguishable color. Priestly seizes the moment to cut her naïve assistant down to size in a monologue tracing how the cerulean blue of Sach's frumpy sweater evolved from the high fashion of the Paris runway. Prada finds the right fit in those moments that weave cleverness and humor and as Sachs struggles to fight off the ruthlessness that threatens to harden her sweet nature. // DVD notes // It's accessorized with a bevy of featurettes, but you know you're not going to watch them.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Horrific holidays

The holidays are looking a tad frightening, and I don't mean the visits with the in-laws. Horror fans have a nice stretch of films hitting DVD in the next few weeks, plus a Christmas horror flick in theaters. Some lowdown:

The Wicker Man • On DVD Dec. 19 // Joining the critically maligned Nicolas Cage remake on DVD the same week will be a two-disc treatment of the 1973 original from Anchor Bay. It appears to be an update of a previous two-disc set with some new interviews and two versions of the movie — the 88-minute theatrical cut and an expanded 99-minute version. Read the reviews at Amazon for lots of bitchy opinions about how much greater the movie is with the extra footage.

Black Christmas • In theaters Dec. 25 // From out of nowhere comes this remake of a 1974 sorority-girls-in-peril flick (also known as Stranger in the House and Silent Night, Evil Night) that has gained some esteem as influential in the genre.

The Descent • On DVD Dec. 26 // Girls in a Cave drew critical raves and comparisons to movies like Alien but descended from the local theater before I was able to catch it.

Snakes on a Plane • On DVD Jan. 2 // It's refreshing to see a title that makes no pretensions, and this surprise box office dud is likely to be a DVD smash.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Recent iTunes downloads

• Quick takes on recent impulse purchases.

Barely Listening • Pilot Speed // This "alternative" track burrows into the subconscious quite like "Munich" by the Editors, although it's not as good as that.

Hourglass • Squeeze // "Takeittothebridge, throwitoverboard, seeifitcanswim …" I became acquainted with Squeeze songs somewhat in reverse, first hearing the top 40 hits "Hourglass" and "853-5937" (no one but me seems to remember this "other" phone number song) in 1987-88 and later the lovely 1981 story-song "Tempted," their only other U.S. chart hit, when it had a mild radio resurgence somewhere around 1993-1995.

In the Morning • Junior Boys // A deliciously layered electronica track spiked with a bit of guitar and the insanely catchy refrain of "Do ya" throughout [Misheard lyric alert: It's "too young," not "do ya," but I'll leave my gaffe here for everyone's amusement]. It bubbles on for about five minutes with no verses, per se, but it doesn't need them. Synthpop fans should investigate.

Apocalypso • Mew // I wouldn't normally download this kind of music, but I like the big sound and brooding melody of this dense rocker. At times, the drama and vocal delivery make me think of Europe's "The Final Countdown," which either delights you or sends you running and screaming from the room.

The Maker Makes • Rufus Wainwright // My interest in Wainwright was piqued by his excellent performance of PSB's "Casanova in Hell," and this gospel-tinged balled is another winner. It's wrought with sorrow, and there's something about that key/melody change on the "Get along little doggies" part that slays me.

Under Pressure (Rah Mix) • Queen and David Bowie // Found on Queen's Greatest Hits Volume III, this nicely juiced dance mix of the classic "Under Pressure" sounds like something that should have been a hit circa 1997 (it was actually released in 1999).

The Bad Touch • Bloodhound Gang // Is it clever or merely juvenile? "Let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel" may not be poetry, but it makes this a fun — if somewhat generic — dance track.

Winter Wonderland • Eurythmics // Dave and Annie's synthpop could sound ever so chilly, but that voice, warm as rays of sunlight (although she can turn on the chill), is the perfect counterpoint. There's no skating on thin ice here — just perfectly chilled blips and bleeps and a glistening vocal delivery of the Christmas standard.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Books: In the Dark • Richard Laymon

• A librarian takes dares for cash in this chiller.

Genres: Horror, suspense/thriller
Released: 1994
Verdict: &&1/2

It's as if Who Wants to Be a Millionaire producer Michael Davies whipped out a horror novel: Mild-mannered (and somewhat unlikable) librarian Jane Kerry finds a note that leads her to a book containing $50 and another note. The second note contains instructions that lead her to $100. From there, the money and the perils multiply with each successive note signed by Mog, the "Master of Games." Her only lifelines are her moxie and a handsome new friend named Brace. The author was onto an intriguing concept that seems in some ways to foreshadow the reality TV games to come. Just how far will a person go for a stack of 16 fresh $100 bills? The best of these mischievous missions finds Jane donning a negligee and crawling inside a coffin in an abandoned, decrepit house. It's both believable that she would do it and genuinely unnerving. From there, however, Laymon goes completely over the top, and the fragile thread of believability snaps. The compelling concept presented an opportunity to delve into the character's psyche as she wrestled with the impulse to keep pushing her limits and raking in the cash, but Laymon never gets beneath the surface of that angle; he instead takes the lightweight path, throwing in gore and sex at the point where the missions should have become psychologically challenging. I'm willing to give Laymon another shot, however — he churned out more than 30 novels and apparently achieved greater success overseas. Still, despite, a posthumous Bram Stoker Novel of the Year Award in 2001 for The Traveling Vampire Show, In the Dark suggests he's more Koontz (who, appropriately enough, penned an intro for the book) than King.

// Is it also a movie? // The cover art, according to the credits page, is from the movie Richard Laymon's In the Dark, but a quick search at All Movie and Imdb reveals that there's no such release, nor any credits for director Clifton Holmes. A Google search turns up a now defunct page for a production company called Gemineye; the Internet archive, fortunately, has it cataloged here. The movie was completed but apparently never released beyond a few screenings that garnered some positive press and comparisons to The Blair Witch Project for its black-and-white, gritty style. Laymon also gushed about the movie, the first screen adaptation from his prolific body of work. It seems the movie might have been more enjoyable than the book. Perhaps this will show up on DVD someday, although, six years later, that seems unlikely.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Random tracks

• Assorted musings from the entertainment world.

Jericho season split • CBS' nuclear serial is one of the few new dramas that got a full season order early on, but the network has decided the show will have an extended break after this week's episode, which will include a cliffhanger finale involving a murder. The show is set to return Feb. 14 with a recap of the first 11 episodes; the subsequent episode will flesh out back story with a look at life in Jericho a day before the bombs exploded. In the interim, the network is beefing up its Jericho content on innertube, including some original content and streams of all episodes to date. I thought the first episode of the series was outstanding, but my interest has since waned somewhat.

Sony Playstation 3 •
What a brilliant marketing scheme: Ship so few units of the follow-up to the most successful console ever that many stores only get a handful of them on the first day of sale, resulting in a media frenzy. That aside, I don't think I'd fork over $600 for it unless it cleans the house and cooks dinner while I'm at work. As for Nintendo's much cheaper Wii with its motion sensitive controller, I don't think a session of video game playing should feel like doing calisthenics (although some might argue it's a good thing for sedentary youth). However, a decent lineup of games might pique my interest in the underdog console. Lots of retro stuff offered for download via the Wi-Fi connection might seriously pique my interest.

The Real Match Game Story: Behind the Blank • GSN occasionally coughs up a solid documentary, and this is interesting, if not as good as the one about the Press Your Luck scandal. Now repeating at various times, this doc features interviews with key players such as panelists Brett Somers and Marcia Wallace, host Gene Rayburn (old interview footage) and key production staff. Ample clips remind the viewer of the knee-slapping, inebriated mood of the envelope-pushing '70s game, and a catty Somers candidly reveals that the other panelists secretly delighted in the moments when contestant fave Richard Dawson would flub a Super Match. Overall, a sadness pervades as Rayburn's daughter talks about how he never got over the show's cancellation.

Burning Love (Remix) • There's a commercial — probably for a car, but I wouldn't know because I don't watch them — that's using an excellent remix of Elvis Presley's "Burning Love," one of my favorites from "the King." It's more or less in the style of the remixes of "A Little Less Conversation" and "Rubberneckin'." I want this mix (it's by something called Mowo), but it doesn't seem to be available anywhere. However, I've seen references to a remix album forthcoming.

Kidnapped on-line • NBC, which has developed an overly itchy trigger finger during its time in last place, quickly axed the best new show of the season, Kidnapped. The remaining episodes are being burned off on-line, but you can't watch past episodes. I missed one or two because I didn't realize they were already airing them on-line, and I don't want to watch the rest without seeing what I've missed. Will this get a DVD release? Hello, NBC? Put them all on-line. It's a crime not to.

Photo: Citizens of Jericho stand their ground. / CBS

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Music: Concrete • Pet Shop Boys

• PSB turn down the electronics with the BBC Orchestra.

Genres: Pop, synthpop, live
Released: October 2006 (import; U.S. release appears to be coming in December)
Verdict: &&&1/2

The Boys do this lush, 17-song concert performance with the BBC Concert Orchestra no favors by calling it Concrete, but such is the sometimes-pretentious world of PSB. Despite numerous concerts in their past, it took them 20 years to go the live album route, and it's more engaging than one might expect, although most fans are going to quibble with some of the song choices. I never cared for the Angelo Badalamenti arrangement of "Rent," which brings out the worst in Neil Tennant's vocal delivery — why mess with pop perfection? I could also do without "Nothing Has Been Proved," written for Dusty Springfield back in the day, and "Friendly Fire," which is one of their best songs but thoroughly butchered here by Frances Barber. Other guest appearances, however, provide some of the liveliest moments: "Casanova in Hell," with its too-cute lyrics, seems tailor-made for the vocal flair of Rufus Wainwright, and the PSB-loving Robbie Williams turns in a fine performance of the gloomy, over-the-top ballad "Jealousy." The inclusion of the hypnotic "Dreaming of the Queen" is a pleasant surprise, while the obscure "After All" from Battleship Potemkin is unlikely to pleasantly surprise anyone. Benefiting the most from the live players are tracks like "Left to My Own Devices" (obviously) and "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk," while "Integral" and "West End Girls" come off surprisingly well with acoustic drums. And solid as this live effort may be, I still don't want to call it Concrete.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

TV: Show Me the Money

• Oh, my.

Genre: Game show
Logistics: ABC, 7 p.m. (Central) Wednesdays, if it hasn't been cancelled yet.
Host: Captain William T. Kirk, aka William Shatner
Verdict: &1/2

It would be tempting to call this a shameless rip-off of Deal or no Deal if it weren't a product of the same production company, Endemol. Still, it feels like a rip-off in which the hot models break into impromptu salsa sessions rather than toting metallic suitcases. In this ill-conceived quiz-dance hybrid (which conveniently followed Dancing with the Stars for Tuesday's awfully long 90-minute preview), the models hold scrolls instead of suitcases. Contestants must amass six correct questions to win the loot; after each question, the contestant chooses a model, and the amount on her scroll determines the amount added to or deducted from the player's total, which can (but probably never will) exceed $1 million. Aside from the general cheesiness of the whole affair, a major criticism lobbed at Show Me the Money is the easiness of the questions. I'll agree that six right answers seems slight for a big wad of loot, but the questions aren't all easy: The debut expected a contestant to name the group that performed the fairly obscure 1994 song "Fade Into You," which reached number 44 on the Hot 100 for Mazzy Star, a group that never charted in the top 40. That's a $1 million level question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, folks. As for Shatner, he does his level best and only breaks out the dramatic delivery (Khan! What … is … the meaning … of this!) on the occasional reading of a question. The overly calculated contestant selections — military hero, stereotypical gay man — only reinforce the general aura of phoniness. It's a safe bet this will quickly exit, and it's a shame a copycat effort like this makes it to air rather than a smart, proven format such as Temptation ($ale of the Century), which begs for a new U.S. version. Between this and FOX's The Rich List, the damage may already be done to the current game show resurgence and the prospect for more new primetime shows.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

TV preview: 3 LBS

• CBS hopes brain doctors add weight to medical drama.

Genre: Medical drama
Logistics: CBS, 9 p.m. Tuesdays; debuts Nov. 14
Cast: Stanley Tucci, Michael Feuerstein, Indira Varma, Armando Riesco
Pilot verdict: &&&

TV needs another doctor or lawyer show like a hole in the head, but CBS offers the neurosurgery drama 3 LBS (it's the weight of the brain and, perhaps, the lead character's ego) to fill a slot vacated early on by Smith, which arguably was the better show. That's not to say this isn't worth watching, though: Stanley Tucci and Mark Feuerstein (Once and Again, The West Wing) are strong leads who have a sort of running good doc-bad doc routine. Tucci portrays a somewhat cold neurosurgeon, while Feuerstein is the new understudy who brings compassion to the ward. The pilot has some nice flashback-like sequences that are atypical of the genre: A young lady who has a brain tumor that affects her speech sees a ceiling covered with words. She climbs onto a chair, reaching for them, but they stay just beyond her grasp. Tucci, meanwhile, is haunted by images of a young girl in what is likely to be a major thread of the series. If 3 LBS can avoid the obvious brain tumor of the week drama, this show might get in some viewers' heads.

Pictured: Stanley Tucci

Movies: House of Dark Shadows

• TV vampire Barnabas Collins goes Hollywood.

Genres: Horror, vampire
Released: 1970
Director: Dan Curtis
Cast: Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Roger Davis, Nancy Barrett, Joan Bennett
Verdict: &&

It's no wonder that writers like Anne Rice and movies like Near Dark attempted to turn the vampire genre inside out: How many times can audiences watch people poking around dark, coffin-filled cellars and dispensing silver bullets? This movie spinoff of the popular 1966-1971 TV vampire soap finds Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid, looking like a middle-aged Lukas Haas) creeping about Collinswood mansion, doing exactly the things you'd expect. To its credit, the movie avoids a few of the standard vampire movie clichés; there are no garlic necklaces, scenes of painful transformation or a demented Renfield type. House of Dark Shadows brings one original idea to the table: A doctor who sniffs out Barnabas isolates a cell in the victims that she believes can cure him. Dignified monster that he is, Barnabas lets her treat him with the injections, which allow him to appear in the daytime. In the capable hands of director Dan Curtis, this drawing room horror is skillfully executed but ultimately too cut from the same cape as all the other vampire cinema of its time.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Music: Rudebox • Robbie Williams

• Williams parties hard on the bittersweet Rudebox.

Genres: Pop, British, dance
Released: October 2006 (import, iTunes)
Verdict: &&&1/2

Brit superstar Robbie Williams' cheeky pop never gained traction on rock-loving American radio; after a couple of minor 1999 hits, "Millennium" and "Angels," the latter of which just missed the top 40, he was all but forgotten. His latest, Rudebox, a hefty 17-track album dominated by Euro pop-dance cuts, doesn't appear to even be getting a U.S. release outside of iTunes. That's unfortunate, because it's actually a fun, more listenable effort than The Ego Has Landed, which was supposed to make him a star in the U.S. The sort-of companion pieces "She's Madonna" and "We're the Pet Shop Boys," both produced by synth gods Pet Shop Boys, each serve as tributes to pop heroes. The former is a hooky glitter ball that might make the queen of pop blush and the latter a cover of My Robot Friend's ode to PSB ("what have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?"). Offsetting the high-energy cuts are "Louise," a William Orbit-produced cover of the classic Human League downer, and "The 80's," arguably the most inspired track of the set, with boldly frank couplets such as, "They didn't have A.D.D. / Thick was the term they used for me." Its companion piece, "The 90's," is about his Take That years and doesn't match "The 80's" musically or lyrically. While Williams exorcises his demons in those decades songs, he could eject three or four of the weaker tracks (I'll suggest "Good Doctor," "Never Touch That Switch" and the caustic hidden track for starters) for a near-great pop album.

// Download picks // The 80's, She's Madonna, We're the Pet Shop Boys, Louise

Sunday, November 05, 2006

TV: Dexter

• Showtime's new drama has a killer hook.

Genres: Serial killer, detective, drama, crime scenes
Logistics: Showtime, 9 p.m. (Central) Sundays
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Lauren Velez, Julie Benz, Erik King, David Zayaz, James Remar
Verdict: &&&&

You can't beat the concept: Dexter Morgan, a blood spatter expert for the Miami Police Department, moonlights as a serial killer who slices and dices other killers — people who deserve to die. That's how his late father (James Remar), a good policeman himself, taught young Dexter to control his dark urges and channel them for good. Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) brings just the right combination of handsome, smart politeness and ambiguity to the role, making Dexter something of a kindred spirit to that other great dignified villain, Hannibal Lecter. When Dexter's dark mind yields hunches about crime scenes, he feeds tips to his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter of The Exorcism of Emily Rose), a green Miami cop who's anxious to blaze the trail in homicide. Through the first three episodes, it is apparent that the ice truck killer story arc, which comprises the main plot of the very good source material, Jeff Lindsey's novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, will serve as the season's backdrop while various subplots (a cop killing, Dexter's feigned love life) provide padding. Dexter senses a connection with the ice truck killer and struggles to hide his playful interest from his sister and coworkers as it becomes clear that the killer is teasing him. That's on top of his daily struggle to mimic human emotions. Episode two meandered a bit with the cop killing and a double date with Dexter's sister, but episode three was the best yet as Dexter revisits his first father-approved kills, including an evil nurse, and tracks a potential new victim. Showtime has just given the nod to a second series of episodes, and it will be interesting to see if season two follows the arc of the second novel, Dearly Devoted Dexter. Either way, I can't wait to see who'll be next to get the knives and Saran Wrap treatment.

// Related // Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsey

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

TV: The Rich List

• Survey says: FOX jumps on the game show bandwagon.

Genre: Game show
Logistics: FOX, 8 p.m. (Central) Wednesday
Host: Eamonn Holmes
Verdict: &&1/2

The Rich List is one of several new games hitting the schedule in the next few months as the networks attempt to cash in on the current post-Deal or no Deal game show resurgence. Hosted by popular British TV host Eamonn Holmes, the game pits teams of two against each other in a contest of naming the most items from a list to earn stacks of cash. The lists aren't based on a survey, but the execution brings to mind Family Feud and the more obscure Hot Potato, as well as the infamous 21The Rich List has isolation pods to keep each team in the dark as the other bids the number of correct answers it can give. Lists in the premiere episode included topics like the top circulation daily newspapers, best picture Oscar winners, Tom Cruise movies and Stephen King novels and short stories (King fans likely noticed a near-error here: A contestant guessed Rose Red, which was a screenplay, and Holmes said, "Oh, you're close, but it's Rose Madder.") There's a decent play-along factor here and the "I can't believe they didn't get Cocktail" factor. It takes two list wins to achieve victory and a trip to the bonus round, which is a list played with a money tree (a device that is now officially overexposed) maxing out at $250,000. Kudos to FOX for employing returning champions, an unfortunate rarity in modern games, but the show is haunted by that Greed aura of jumping on a bandwagon. Still, for trivia and game show fans, there are worse ways to spend an hour. It's not like there's any danger of you switching over to NBC for the tears and tantrums weight scale drama of The Biggest Loser, is there?

// Update 11.02 // zap2it reports that The Rich List is off the schedule after poor ratings for the premiere. An episode of The O.C. (is that still on?) fills the Wednesday slot next week.

DVD: An American Haunting

• The Bell Witch Project gets lost in the woods.

Genre: Horror, period piece
DVD released: Oct. 24, 2006
Director: Courtney Solomon
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Sissy Spacek, James D'Arcy, Matthew Marsh
Verdict: &&1/2

There's a decent horror movie lurking within The Bell Witch Project, a loosely fact-based tale that can't quite cast its spell. Trouble begins for the Bell family after patriarch John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is accused of usury and threatened by the victim, a woman commonly believed to be a witch in early 1800s Tennessee. Soon, a menacing wolf appears, the family hears noises, and daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is tormented by an unseen entity who slaps her around and drags her up the stairs. As the disturbances escalate, John Bell becomes ill and tormented, and Betsy's schoolteacher takes a skeptical and slightly romantic interest in the happenings. Along the way are a number of clues to a dark family secret that is bubbling just beneath the surface and apparently instigating the horror. When it is revealed in a rather abrupt conclusion, it also turns out to be a fairly uninteresting and muddled (and historically inaccurate, some say) end to a movie that gets by surprisingly well in its first 90 percent on fairly standard horror conventions. // DVD notes // Puzzled by the ending? Four (!) alternate endings are equally muddled, but watching them helped me understand part of the ending that I didn't get on first viewing. The disc also includes deleted scenes, an interview with horror maven Spacek and a pretty good Dolby Digital EX soundtrack.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

DVD: Slither

• Don't let them in your mouth!

Genres: Horror, sci-fi, comedy
DVD released: Oct. 24, 2006
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Brenda James, Don Thompson
Verdict: &&&1/2

Slither is played more for laughs than frights from start to finish, and a new generation has likely found its Tremors. An alien falls to earth on a meteor, landing in a small backwater, and begins populating the planet with slithering, slug-like creatures that inhabit humans by entering the mouth. The entity begins its Earth takeover with regular guy Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), whose body changes and appetite for meat becomes overwhelming (he stockpiles fresh cuts from the grocer). Grant must evade the suspicions of his sweet wife, Starla (Elizabeth Banks), and Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion, bringing the same engaging wit and cockiness that served him well in Firefly and Serenity). The script borrows elements from movies such as Body Snatchers and any number from the tired zombie genre (Gunn scripted the respectable 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake) without ever feeling derivative, while also relentlessly delivering smart comic relief. Gregg Henry brings down the house as the foul-mouthed mayor, and one of the most hilarious bits involves a romantic scene and the Air Supply song, "Every Woman in the World." While never taking itself seriously, however, Slither actually uncurls a sci-fi horror plot more compelling than that of most of the straight-faced horror flicks of the last few years. // DVD notes // Slitherites are rewarded with a loaded DVD treatment including deleted and extended scenes, bloopers, making-of and effects featurettes, a feature on Fillion's character, a set tour with star Fillion, feature commentary with Gunn and Fillion, and a video diary by Tromeo & Juliet director Lloyd Kaufman.

TV: Parental Control

• MTV brings sick and twisted to dating shows.

Genres: Reality, dating
Logistics: MTV, 4:30 p.m. (Central) weekdays, with numerous repeats
Verdict: &&&

Train-wreck television at its best, Parental Control is the first MTV series I have sought out on a regular basis since the soap Undressed and reality stalwart The Real World circa the New Orleans season. This shameless and vicious dating series features a cast of six in each guilty-pleasure episode: Two parents, their son or daughter, the son or daughter's boyfriend or girlfriend whom the parents loathe, and two dates hand picked by the parents to replace him/her (hence the title). Intercut with date footage are scenes of the current boyfriend or girlfriend sitting with the parents, watching each date unfold and trading barbs. Date activities are calculated to lead to shedding of clothes and, when possible, kissing, humping and other physical contact. Back with the parents, the current squeeze dishes an insulting running commentary while the parents dish it right back at him/her, and it's hilarious more often than not. But I hate this show for the way it reduces a current girlfriend to tears as she watches her beau kissing on some skank who wants to steal him away; for the way the show glorifies hotness as the ultimate attribute; for the way it causes adults to behave as immaturely as their libidinous offspring; and for the way it unceremoniously severs a relationship at the end of the show if one of the parents' dates has been chosen, as if it's no more than trash to be swept out the door. And yet, I cannot look away.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

DVD: American Dreamz

• It's a must-see for American Idol haters.

Genres: Comedy, satire
DVD released: Oct. 17, 2006
Director: Paul Weitz
Cast: Hugh Grant, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Chris Klein, Sam Golzari, Seth Meyers, Willem Dafoe, Marcia Gay Harden
Verdict: &&&1/2

This black comedy from American Pie director Paul Weitz seems brutally dark until you consider that Chuck & Buck is also among his credits. The targets are worthy: Firstly, America's obsession with televised karaoke contests (American Idol) and, secondly, politicians of questionable repute. Hugh Grant is outstanding as Martin Tweed, host of "America's most popular show," American Dreamz. Tweed is a self-loathing jackass who's bored with the show and looking for some contestants to mix things up. He's drawn to Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore in Kelly Clarkson mode) because he sees she's as twisted as he is and likely has more desire to win than she has talent: Though she no longer loves him, she uses her boyfriend's (Chris Klein) sob injured-in-Iraq story to give her an edge on the competition. "Sometimes I look at you and I see my own reflection," Tweed tells her. "It's revolting. And attractive." Kendoo, who tells Tweed she's "not physically attracted to other people," dismisses Tweed as "no-talent" and "famous for being famous." Tweed's other find is Omer (Sam Golzari), an Arab terrorist who loves show tunes and has been sent to America to carry out an attack. Meanwhile, a Dubya-like president's V.P. arranges for the prez to be a guest judge on the American Dreamz finals. Surprisingly, the president (Dennis Quaid, nailing it perfectly) is portrayed as awakening to reality and a victim of his handlers, particularly the vice president. The threads intersect in rather surprising — and quite dark — fashion onstage during the final show of the season. There aren't a ton of laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, but it's a razor-sharp skewering of some of the more disappointing elements of our culture today. If this is in any measure atonement for American Pie, all is forgiven. // DVD notes // Deleted scenes include a number of cut performance sequences. "Center Stage: Sally Kendoo" plays like a behind-the-scenes look at American Dreamz as it might appear in a TV Guide Channel segment. "Dance Dreamz" describes the numerous inspirations for the dance steps (everything from Beyonce to Backstreet Boys), and the feature commentary includes Weitz and Golzari.

Site stuff: More on Blogger Beta

• About labels and blog search.

Blogger launched one of its best Beta features yet this past week — a handy label (category) manager on the edit posts page. Using a drop-down menu of your labels and check boxes next to each post title, it's now simple to add and remove labels from posts. This is great, because the only way to add labels to older posts before was to bring up a post for editing, add the labels and save it again. I had done that to maybe 20 of my older posts, but I didn't like the way it was bringing them back to the top of my FeedBurner feed. The only quirk I noticed with the label manager is the "new label" feature doesn't work unless a post is selected. I've added the basic labels to all the blog's posts today, and the Jeblog's categories should be completely up to date by later today.

While my transition to Blogger Beta has been exciting, I've run into one significant problem: Google Blog Search seems to have lost my feed altogether. No posts since the switch have shown up there. That's a real bummer, because it's a major source of my traffic. I feel confident the problem isn't on my end, because posts are still popping up as normal at Technorati and in my FeedBurner feed. Blog Search support told me that, ultimately, nothing is guaranteed (gee, thanks). Anyone who can help me solve this one will earn my eternal gratitude and admiration.

// Update (11/15) // A few of the first Beta posts showed up in Google Blog Search, but no more have since then. Very strange. All other indexing is occuring as normal; I've been keeping a close eye on Technorati, Icerocket, Google and others, and pinging far more aggressively than I used to. For another take on Google Blog Search problems, see this post.

// Update (11/19) // It seems every time I post about this, something changes. Within the last few days, all the missing posts showed up in Google Blog Search, and the newest post was indexed within an hour. It may have been much sooner; I didn't look until about an hour later. So, it appears this problem may finally be resolved some six weeks after converting to Blogger Beta. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

TV: 1 vs. 100

• NBC asks: Are 100 heads better than one?

Genre: Game show
Logistics: NBC, 7 p.m. Friday for the remainder of its five-episode run
Host: Bob Saget
Verdict: &&&1/2

Quick: Which of the following shows doesn't revolve around FBI agents Monk, Criminal Minds or Without a Trace? That's the kind of pop culture trivia that repeatedly appears in NBC's new primetime quizzer, 1 vs. 100, another offering from Endomol (Deal or no Deal) and yet another import of an internationally successful game show format. Yes, this is another show in which a contestant faces a series of increasingly difficult questions while progressing up a money tree with the aid of a couple of "lifelines," but the hook here is the "mob": a group of 100 people that the primary contestant must eliminate. For each question the one answers correctly, she earns a progressively increasing dollar amount multiplied by the number of mob members who answer incorrectly. With questions centered on pop culture rather than general knowledge, it isn't so much about being the smartest person in the room as it is about having a sponge-like memory of pop culture tidbits. Although school teachers and Jeopardy! king Ken Jennings were among the mob on the premiere episode, it's no stretch that the brainiacs might get tripped up on an inane question about, to use another example from the premiere, where American Idol judge Paula Abdul normally sits. It can also produce wildly inconsistent results: On Friday's premiere, none of the first contestant's mob missed the first question, but 11 of the second contestant's mob missed the opener, yielding her a measly $1,100 for knocking them out. With better questions, however, the format has the potential to be more interesting than the rather one-note Deal or no Deal, which has gotten amazing mileage out of a game of probability and picking numbers. The 1 vs. 100 premiere never really yielded a tense moment when a player might win or lose a ton of money, but I can imagine some exciting scenarios when a player has knocked out most of the mob. As with Deal, the presentation is part of the appeal 1 vs. 100 seats the mob in a huge stadium-like wall with cool lighting. Also as in Deal, fun stats are thrown up on the screen from time to time (e.g., 84 percent of the remaining mob are college graduates). As for "comedian" Bob Saget (formerly of America's Funniest Home Videos) as host, he performed reasonably well in the premiere. Though he's no Howie Mandel, his game may end up being the better deal.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

TV: 30 Rock, Twenty Good Years

• Must-see comedy Wednesday? Maybe.

NBC created a viewing dilemma for me this week, scheduling two appealing sitcom concepts against the intriguing nuclear drama Jericho. First impressions:

30 Rock (7 p.m. Wednesday) • With the brilliant Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin on board, this behind-the-scenes take on an SNL-like skit show has the potential to become the first truly must-see comedy in years. In typical fashion, Baldwin devours the scenery whole and kills from the moment he introduces himself as vice president of East Coast television and microwave oven programming. In the premiere, he arrives on the scene to tinker with Fey's baby, "The Girlie Show," and troubled comedian Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) joins her cast. Morgan's scenes in the premiere aren't as funny as they ought to be, and I'm looking forward to seeing lots more of Baldwin hamming it up as the network exec who spouts viewer research data and focus group inanities every other sentence. A favorite moment in the premiere: drunk Liz (Fey) throwing down to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It." 30 Rock has a similar in-your-face reality quality to that of The Office; in fact, the two seem obvious partners for a one-hour comedy block. While that vibe can lead to some dull moments, 30 Rock promises to inject some needed laughter into the current sitcom landscape. Verdict: &&&1/2

Twenty Good Years (7:30 p.m. Wednesday) • Odd couple old guys cut loose. The endlessly hilarious John Lithgow does the same egomaniac shtick he did on 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Jeffrey Tambor (so great as Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show) does his insecurity routine. Depending on your perspective, it's either: A) an opportunity to watch two of the best at work, even if the material is mediocre, or B) it's a shame to see two great talents muddling through mediocre sitcom material that makes The Class not look so dull. Verdict: &&1/2

All times Central. Photo: NBC

Sunday, October 08, 2006

TV: Drowning in drama

• Quick takes on some of the new season's many dramas.

Kidnapped (NBC, 8 p.m. Saturday) • It figures that my favorite new drama has already been given a death-sentence and shipped off to Saturday's rerun wasteland to burn off the remainder of its 13 episodes (last season, I was into Invasion and Surface). The show has a cinematic quality that doesn't feel like an NBC drama, and the characters and plotting are rich. Fifteen-year-old Leopold Cain (Will Denton), son of a wealthy family, is abducted, and Jeremy Sisto excels as a former FBI agent who works outside the system to recover kidnap victims by whatever ruthless means necessary. Interesting things going on include father Conrad Cain (expertly captured by Timothy Hutton) confronting old enemies and the kidnap mastermind having his minions murdered by a cold assassin. I'm completely hooked, and this show deserves a better fate. Verdict: &&&&1/2

Ugly Betty (ABC, 7 p.m. Thursday) • Despite having one of those killer no-holds-barred timeslots, Ugly Betty, based on a Univision telenovela, has "breakout hit" written all over it. The title sparks curiosity, and that soapy-cheesy telenovela sensibility is appealing (I loved the scene last week in which Betty's father was seen watching a telenovela). You can't help but root for Betty (America Ferrera), who's just landed an editorial assistant gig at Mode, a fashion magazine full of cutthroats. When she gets in a bind, her hilariously spunky, "no you di-in!" sister, Hilda (Ana Ortiz), comes to the rescue. Verdict: &&&

Shark (CBS, 9 p.m. Thursday) • James Woods perfectly nails Sebastian Stark, a shyster defense attorney who converts to the DA's office after seeing one of the clients he saved from a murder conviction with blood on his hands. Among Stark's foils are Star Trek: Voyager's Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) as his former nemesis in the DA's office and a team of young, green prosecutors. Boston Legal may do the smarmy shtick best, but Shark acquits itself well. Verdict: &&&1/2

Smith (CBS) • Reports indicate CBS has already sent Smith to the trash heap. The premiere was a well-crafted actioner with Ray Liotta leading a team of surgical strike criminals while coming to the realization that he must drop his double life and be a family man. Verdict: &&&

Men in Trees (ABC, 8 p.m. Friday) • This music-happy Anne Heche vehicle comes across as a quirky sex/relationship drama with a dose of Northern Exposure-wannabe quirkiness. My favorite exchange from last week's episode: She: "What's that thing on your hand?" He: "That's a condom machine." Verdict: &&1/2

All times central. Photo: Kidnapped/NBC

Tackling Blogger Beta

Sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind, eh? After much hemming and hawing because of the many horror stories and naysayers, this blog has finally been converted to the new Blogger Beta as of yesterday. This means we'll have the benefit of properly functioning category links (Blogger calls them "labels") in the sidebar as we go forward. I intend to gradually add labels to the older posts as time and willpower allows.

My big hesitation with switching mostly had to do with figuring out how to get my custom header (it's merely a jpeg image) in place of the generic Blogger heading. I couldn't find any clear instructions on how to do this, but I pieced together bits from here and there combined with a little tinkering on my own and got it to work.

For those who are interested, these are the tricks I used: In Beta, go to "edit html." Find b:widget id='Header1' locked='true' and change "true" to "false." This will allow a "remove element" button when the standard header is being edited on the template page elements sub-tab. To get rid of the prefabricated rectangle that contains your snappy blog title and allow the custom header to take over this space, remove the /* Blog Header section all the way down to font: $ description Font;} . You can increase the number of elements allowed in the header area by finding maxwidgets="1" in the code for the header and replacing the one with, for example, two. Once the code changes were in place, all I had to do was add an HTML/JavaScript element at the top, using the img src code with the URL of my header.

Thus far, I love the ease of use — especially the instant saving of changes. It hasn't been as tedious as I'd feared, as the sidebar was largely preserved in the migration and upgrade to layouts, as was all the formatting of individual posts. Only the "recent comments" hack was lost. Also, I had to re-add my counter code in the new template html.

// Update 12.16.06 //

A few people asked for more details on how to add the custom header, including the owner of this nice blog. I'm happy to share the "how-to" notes I made for myself when I did it. Just drop me an e-mail via my profile page.

At this point, I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't switch to Beta, as it is now feature-complete, and Blogger has dropped the hint that everyone will soon be using the new version.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Books: The Minotaur • Barbara Vine

• This novel is a bit of a beast.

Genre: Mystery
Published: March 21, 2006, by Shaye Areheart Books
Verdict: &&1/2

At least one and possibly two Vines (The Chimney Sweeper's Boy and No Night Is too Long) would rank among my top 10 favorite novels, but this 1960s-set drawing room character study tested my patience. A young Swedish nurse, Kerstin Kvist, is hired to provide care for John Cosway, a misunderstood autistic man living with his mother, stuffy old Mrs. Cosway, and his four spinster sisters. This takes place at Lydstep Old Hall, an English mansion with a library containing a maze and dark family secrets hiding in the shadows, as they do in all Vines. Kerstin quickly surmises that John is being fed pills he doesn't need to keep him tranquilized, and she's left with little to do beyond make notations in her diary about the sisters' conflicts and romantic affairs while pining for John to come out of his fog — something his mother fears. The writer (Ruth Rendell, penning her 12th pseudonymous Vine) is particularly adept at portraits of troubled souls, but this is ultimately less about John than the sisterly and motherly drama that builds to an unsurprising and not particularly interesting climax. Though the prose flows with her usual grace and literary precision, The Minotaur doesn't live up to the master's usual standards.

// Incidentally // Patricia Cornwell has called Rendell/Vine "unequivocally, the most brilliant mystery writer of our time."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

TV: That's the Question

• GSN adds another word game to its stable of originals.

Genre: Game show
Logistics: GSN, 5 p.m. (Central) weekdays
Verdict: &&&1/2

GSN's fourth (!) game show launched since April could give enduring hit Lingo a run in the addictive word game category. Despite some obvious similarities to Wheel of Fortune (the hangman concept) and Jeopardy! (contestants guess the question), this imported format never feels derivative. Here's how it works: While presented with a series of trivia questions — mostly pop culture and history — contestants are shown the scrambled answers, each of which contains an extra letter. That extra letter is then revealed in a question displayed hangman-style onscreen. For example, if the extra letter is "E," all of the E's in the question are revealed. Contestants get points as they answer the rapid-fire questions that reveal letters and bonus points for solving the onscreen question. In the first round, the answer to the question is revealed; in the second round, they have to determine both the question and its answer. While it sounds a tad confusing, That's the Question is easy to pick up and play along. I like that if forces contestants to think on multiple layers: They've got to be quick on their feet to answer the rapid-fire trivia to maintain control and reveal letters while, at the same time, trying to determine the question. Unlike on GSN's new train wreck Chain Reaction, the games this week have been highly competitive with the outcome often coming down to the wire. That's a good sign for a game that is played within a set time allotment rather than to a specific goal. The $5,000 bonus round is essentially more of the same, with the winner's score (e.g., 107) converted into seconds to answer trivia and reveal letters in a question. The contestant must also come up with the "final answer." The show misses a chance to get viewers involved by eschewing returning champions, but it has a nice set design with a lot of yellow and green on a giant "Q" — a nice change of pace from the still-pervasive dark Millionaire look that was tired six years ago. Host Bob Goen, the Entertainment Tonight vet, is smooth and affable — an excellent fit for the show, which is GSN's best effort since I've Got a Secret. Will the audience follow? That's the … well, you know.

// Incidentally // Bob Goen hosted the last couple of years of daytime Wheel of Fortune, which ended in 1991.

Music: Recent iTunes downloads

• Quick takes on recent impulse purchases at the iTunes store.

Current song count: 1,866 (5.5 days)

The Rising • Bruce Springsteen // I like my 9/11 songs to do more than just wave the flag and ask, "Have you forgotten?" Not surprisingly, Springsteen delivers with an urgent anthem that is hopeful and yearning while grounded in world-weariness. The recurring references to Mary in certain songs are a nice touch.

I Touch Myself • The Divinyls // Radio these days is lacking for this kind of clever, fun and melodic pop rockers (among many other things radio is lacking). I forever associate this one hit wonder with my high school senior year (1991) and the twilight of my favorite era of pop music. You have to believe vocalist Christina Amphlett when, just before the fade, she sneaks in, "I honestly do."

Hey Mr. Jones • Jane Child // I had the "cassingle" of her second single, "Welcome to the Real World," and this was the b-side. I thought her big hit, "Don't Wanna Fall in Love," was generic and, based on the songs I've heard, unrepresentative of Child's ouvre. She's a bit like a more demented Pink, with a big, synthy pop sound, but quite dark ("nobody knows me like the monkey on my back"). It's almost scary, really, if you look at that chain dangling from her nose.

Steal My Sunshine • Len // It's all about that sort of Pong-y popping sound, isn't it? Despite the sunny female pop vocals, there's an odd tone to the lyrics and spoken bits that makes one wonder just what's afoot in all this talk of butter tarts and "tribal lunar speak."

Yours to Keep • Teddybears (featuring Neneh Cherry) // What ever happened to the chick who gave us the great "Buffalo Stance"? Here she is guesting on a new and pleasant slice of pop that has some interesting percussive things going on.

Tunnel of Love • Bruce Springsteen // This is one of those songs I ignored at the time (1987), but it's a meticulously layered production with a nice groove and the synthy stamp of its era. I love the carnival sounds buried in the mix as Springsteen works the Americana vibe to perfection.

// Previous installment //

Saturday, September 30, 2006

TV: Survivor - Cook Islands

• An early look at the ups and downs of Survivor's controversial new season.

Logistics: CBS, 7 p.m. (Central) Thursdays
Verdict thus far: &&&

The gimmick • I'll refrain from saying "I told you so" in light of Cowboy cracking racial jokes in episode two. If any further proof was needed that the racial tribe concept was nothing more than a publicity stunt, it came in episode three as the tribes were completely reconfigured. And what's up with these tribe names that either are or sound like "iTunes," "Puka" and "Man Hickey"?

The location • Remember when it was all about the dire circumstances of the location — killer scorpions, contaminated water, man-eating monkeys — breathlessly detailed by host Jeff Probst at the beginning of the first episode of a season? If Cook Islands even merited a mention this time, I don't remember it. It's just another sandy beach that's more or less interchangeable with those that preceded it. The best locales have been the Outback and whichever island it was that had the relics of war — sunken ships and rusty artillery next to the driftwood. At this late stage, it's time to make the location matter again. Survivor: Death Valley or Survivor: Denver International Airport might be a welcome change of pace.

The game • Viewers must rely on the basic game to restore faith in the face of Mark Burnett trying ever so hard to make his show jump the shark, and it delivers. In classic clueless fashion in episode two, the alpha males of the Latino tribe, J.P. and Ozzy, decide to throw the immunity challenge in order to vote out rocker Billy, who "sits around doing nothing," yadda yadda yadda. Billy is roused just enough to attempt to mount an insurrection, and, oh, how I was pulling for him to make it happen despite his idiocy. The only thing more fun than Probst telling the tribe members during tribal council how stupid they are for throwing a challenge with a tribe of only five was Billy's mid-tribal catfight confession that "I'm in love!" with a chick from another tribe with whom he has spent no more time than it took to ride in on the boat before being tossed overboard at the beginning of the game (in episode three, she basically says he's crazy to think a love connection was made). Probst's jaw-dropping reaction spoke for all of America — or those who were still watching, at least.