Wednesday, November 23, 2011

3-Sentence Reviews: November Sweeps 2011

Rather than reviewing television shows at the beginning of the season, this year I've waited until the November sweeps to see what survived, both in terms of my interest and the ratings.

The promise of "Steven Spielberg does dinosaurs on TV" was enough to draw me into Terra Nova, and a month or two in, there's not much keeping me there.  Shows have tried very hard to claim the "spiritual successor to Lost" title and largely failed because they never learned the lesson that Lost was more about the characters than the setting or mythology.  Dinosaurs, time travel, and mysterious antagonists are fine and good, but this show is going to need interesting characters besides Commander Taylor if it wants to survive.

It's been clear to me for some time that eventually, at some point, I would stop being able to bring myself to care about the psychological insecurities of doctors on House, and that point is now.  Park and Adams are okay--and this season is much better than that disaster of a seventh season we just had to endure--but the show has been in decline since the end of the third season.  With any luck, this eighth season will be the last, and the announcement of an end date will spark a return to form for the rest of the year.

Zooey Deschanel vehicle New Girl knows it's a Zooey Deschanel vehicle, and at least it's been true to its mission.  While none of the characters are as interesting as Deschanel's Jess, the show has enough laugh-out-loud moments per episode that I'm still watching.  Its biggest trap is going to be becoming too relationship-y; The Big Bang Theory went from excellent to awful when it became "geek Friends," and New Girl desperately needs to avoid becoming "quirk Friends".

That The Office has managed to keep itself afloat without Michael Scott says a lot for the quality of the writing and the rest of the ensemble.  The old tone and character is still there, and the brilliant Ed Helms portrays boss-Andy just as engagingly as he did worker-Andy.  My only reservation is new big-boss Robert California; instead of the comedic ineptitude that we're used to from the show, he gives us unsettling corporatism.

Points for my new favorite show of the year go to Person of Interest, a very CBS procedural starring Jesus and Ben Linus Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson.  It's disorienting but refreshing to hear Michael Emerson not lie whenever he talks, and if nobody has managed to become to spiritual successor to Lost yet, Caviezel's Mr. Reese may well have become the spiritual successor to Jack Bauer.  I'm not sure I need the Detective Carter storyline, and we'll wait to judge the overarching Elias plot until the end of the season; for now, I'm just enjoying the weekly antics of Finch and Reese.

I'm a little angry at The Mentalist for (apparently) breaking the Megatron Rule; in keeping antagonist Red John alive, they've completely negated the impact of the show's best episode, last year's season finale.  Maybe the show will finally move past Red John at some point.  But even if it doesn't, it remains one of TV's best procedurals, with trademark deadpan, snarky tone, and one of the most memorable and likeable leading characters on TV.

Currently listening: "Congratulations," the Juliana Theory

Friday, November 04, 2011

Mylo Xyloto (and a Coldplay retrospective)

I suppose I consider myself a Coldplay fan, though my road to Coldplay fandom is definitely the one less traveled by.

There are two sorts of Coldplay fans.  The first one listened to Parachutes on repeat back in 2000, proclaiming it brilliant, and A Rush of Blood to the Head on repeat back in 2002, proclaiming it slightly less inspired but still wonderful.  2005 brought X&Y, and with it, a disliked new direction and a hated mainstream popularity.  Fans of early Coldplay became Not Fans of later Coldplay, and even though Viva la Vida is inarguably the band's greatest achievement musically, critically, and commercially, they were long finished with the band by 2008.

Fortunately for Coldplay, the second sort of fan decided to show up circa Viva la Vida.  This fan probably heard "Speed of Sound" a couple dozen times on the radio between May and October 2005--with maybe the occasional "Talk" or "Fix You" thrown in for good measure--and forgot about Coldplay, only be be inundated again three years later.  "Viva la Vida" pervaded every aspect of media and pop culture for a summer, and it attracted an entirely new cohort of Coldplay devotees.  For this second sort of fan, "Violet Hill" is more quintessentially Coldplay than "Clocks," and "Yellow" is a color, not a song.

Where was I in all of this?  I was a bit young to know what Parachutes was when it was released, but by Rush of Blood, I'd caught on to the band's existence.  The difference between me and the cool-kid early adopters was that I didn't actually like Rush of Blood, and I liked Parachutes even less when I went back and listened to it.  It's not that I actively disliked it; early Coldplay simply occupies the "inoffensive but uninteresting" musical domain alongside electronica and classic rock.

It's a little odd, then, how eager I was to grab X&Y in 2005, and even more odd how much I liked it.  I might be the only person on the planet who liked X&Y; everyone else had either abandoned Coldplay or not caught on to them yet.  But even it lost its charm after a few years, and I was decidedly less interested in keeping up with the band immediately prior to Viva la Vida.  I didn't know there was a new Coldplay album, and I didn't know that this "Viva la Vida" song I'd been bombarded with was theirs.  But my mom vouched for the album, and I picked it up and enjoyed just about every thing about it. "Viva la Vida" is a fine song, and its success in bringing new fans to Coldplay is a testament to its quality, but Viva la Vida succeeds on so many levels beyond just its title track that it's clearly the greatest thing the band has ever done.

But now it's 2011, and Coldplay has painted itself into a bit of a corner.  They've released four albums, each consistently--even exponentially--better than the last.  Is it fair to expect the fifth album to outdo Viva la Vida by the same margin that Viva la Vida outdid X&Y?  Is it even possible?  Viva la Vida is a legitimate magnum opus, the sort of album that's a ceiling on achievement for virtually any band out there.  Realistically, the best that Coldplay fans could expect was that they would move laterally along that ceiling for their fifth album, giving us an album that's equally good but that explores different musical territory.

And for a brief, shining moment, it looked like we might get it.  The second single from the still-mysterious Mylo Xyloto was a song called "Paradise," and we knew Coldplay had it in them.  Forget "Viva la Vida"--forget Viva la Vida, for that matter; this was clearly the the greatest thing the band has ever done.  "Paradise" is not only the best song in Coldplay's discography, it's the greatest thing to have come out of the pop/rock mainstream this decade, and it's an example to the rest of the genre what contemporary mainstream pop/rock can and ought to be.  There's lavish orchestration, but not for a second does it sound overproduced; the secret is that the production leaves Chris Martin's voice alone and lets him just sing, displaying both his trademark falsetto and his increasingly competent tenor.  There are interesting melodic devices: major/minor inversions, octave jumps, modal and pentatonic themes.  And the hook draws you in, and despite being played a few too many times, never actually overstays its welcome.

Unfortunately--perhaps predictably--the rest of Mylo Xyloto can't quite live up to "Paradise".  Little of it is actually bad, instead creating a confused jumble of strange decisions.  Two of the strangest are the concept and the ventures into some decidedly 2011 genres.

Apparently Mylo Xyloto is in fact a concept album, an urban-dystopian love story.  While songs like "Us Against the World" and especially "Major Minus" make the 1984 influence all too clear, that the album is supposed to tell a coherent story can really only be deduced once you know the concept is supposed to be there.  There are clues here and there, and points to Coldplay for giving the story a happy ending, but like Halloween costumes, the best concept albums are the ones that require the least explanation.

Aside from the (supposed) concept, Mylo Xyloto is at its weirdest (but not necessarily its worst) when it tries to stray too far from Coldplay and too much into "things you would hear on the radio in 2011".  "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" sounds like it wants to be a collaboration with either Lady Gaga (judging from its first thirty seconds of dance-poppiness) or Rebecca Black ("I turn the music up, I got my records on/ I shut the world outside until the lights come on") but is a pretty decent song once you forgive it that.  "Princess of China" sounds like it should be is a collaboration with Rihanna, which is one of the most perplexing musical crossovers of the century, but again not exactly bad if you're into that sort of thing.

The worst moments of the album have to be its interspersed ballads, which hit more like musical roadblocks than emotional weights.  "Us Against the World" in particular is an unfortunate flirtation of Martin with the dregs of his vocal register, and "Up With the Birds" is as blandly generic a way to end the album as could probably be conceived.

It's not all bad outside "Paradise": both "Hurts Like Heaven" and "Charlie Brown" are fine songs.  Incidentally, they're the songs that come immediately before and immediately after "Paradise," which brings up an interesting point.  Does "Paradise" polarize the rest of the album; does it make the mediocre songs seem relatively better and the tepid to bad songs seem relatively worse?  The best way to answer this question is to make your very own Mylo Xyloto remix:

  1. Make a playlist that contains all of the songs on Mylo Xyloto.
  2. Delete "Paradise".
  3. Listen to the playlist.

How does it sound?  There's little you don't want to listen to, but more importantly, there's little to nothing that gets you excited about it.

Mylo Xyloto proves that Coldplay has come a long way in the last decade.  They're making sounds, exploring styles, and covering entirely different musical spectra than they would have dared to in the early 2000s.  However, in some sort of ironic way, Mylo Xyloto is the most Parachutes-y album since Parachutes.  It has more definitely good tracks and more definitely bad tracks, but the bulk of the album is back to "inoffensive but uninteresting," familiar ground indeed for Coldplay.

Currently listening: "New Frame of Mind," Kathryn Calder

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Pyongyang Pikas Postgame: Week 8 and Midseason Analysis

The Pikas were destined to lose their Week 8 game from before the season even started, when the Pyongyang front office noticed "there sure are a lot of players on bye in Week 8."  With Aaron Rodgers, Michael Turner, and Matt Forte not playing, an average of 58 points evaporated from the Pikas scorecard, and it proved impossible to fill the holes.

With backup quarterback Philip Rivers not producing this entire season, the Pikas turned to the free agent market to replace Rodgers, and the best option available was Eli Manning.  Eli, to his credit, threw together 21 fantasy points, suggesting that he has a future as Rodgers' backup on the Pyongyang bench.  The resurgent Frank Gore had a nearly Matt Forte-esque game, earning 19 points, but Chris Johnson once again derailed the Pikas at running back, scoring only 3.  (Fortunately for the Pikas, Chris Johnson should never have to start again.)

At wide receiver, neither Mike Wallace nor Wes Welker seemed interested in playing against each other's team, with the Steelers/Patriots game only netting the Pikas 10 points between the two.  One bright spot was Antonio Gates at tight end; despite having to come back from injury and a lackluster Phillip Rivers throwing to him, Gates looked good and scored respectably.

But against Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scoring 27 points each, the Pikas' replacement-filled roster really couldn't compete, and they suffered their fourth loss of the year.

Final score: North Dakota Narwhals 129, Pikas 95 Pikas record: 4-4 (3-0 in division)

With any luck, and maybe some help from a Calvin Johnson bye, the Pikas will break the "Tom's Team" curse next week and finally defeat 2MuchJohnson4U.

Now that it's the middle of the season, what's working and what's not on the Pikas roster is finally taking shape.

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers has been the Pikas' most consistent and most prolific scorer, never slipping below 20 and averaging 26.  He's the league's highest-scoring player in terms of points per game; because he's already had a bye, barring a disastrous injury, there won't be a reason to start a quarterback besides Rodgers for the rest of the season.  It's a good thing, because backup Philip Rivers hasn't impressed at all this season.  At other positions, or for other teams, it makes sense to have a backup in case of bad matchups.  Rodgers has shown that there is no bad matchup against him.

Running back: RB has turned into a strength for the Pikas, though the depth chart looks a little different than it did in the preseason.  At the beginning of the season, the Pikas started Chris Johnson, Frank Gore, and Michael Turner, with Matt Forte as a nice bench option in case of an injury, bye, or bad matchup.  But when Johnson proved totally ineffective, and Gore sustained an injury, the Pikas were forced to look elsewhere.  Simultaneously, though, Matt Forte decided to have a breakout season, and the Pikas were able to make a key acquisition of Fred Jackson.  Now, the Pikas start Jackson (the league's #2 scorer in terms of points per game), Forte (#5), and Turner (#6), with Gore as the bench option now that he's healthy and playing like he's supposed to.

Wide receiver: Falcons star Roddy White was supposed to be the Pikas standout at WR with Mike Wallace backing him up.  They're a fine combination, with White disappointing a little but Wallace scoring in the league's top five wide receivers.  But the Pikas got an unexpected boon early in the season when Tom's team released Wes Welker, who has had a solid season interspersed with a couple of monstrous games to become the league's #2 wide receiver.  The Pikas plan going forward is to start wide receiver by committee: choose the two most promising of those three in any given week.

Tight end: TE has been one of the few real disappointments for the Pikas so far.  Starter Antonio Gates missed most of the first half of the season due to injury; backup Jermichael Finley, taking away one colossal 26-point performance, has been a little flat.  The good news is that Gates is healthy and playing like the athlete he is, but if any doubt lingers, it's that Philip Rivers' season has been considerably less than impressive.  Gates is a playmaker catching the football, but he needs a playmaker throwing the football to be effective.

Kicker: This is a tough position to analyze in fantasy because there's so much variance, but Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been fine so far.  An offense that gets a lot of yards needs a lot of placekicks, either from field goals or PATs, and Gostkowski has done his job well.

Defense/Special Teams: The Ravens defense can do it all: prevent a team from scoring, force fumbles, get a half-dozen sacks per game.  It's a fun defense to watch, with (alleged) murderer Ray Lewis leading the way and getting fired up about all sorts of things.

Outlook: The Pikas have a roster built to win football games.  As long as everyone does their part, shows up each week, and doesn't get hurt, Pyongyang is a legitimate title contender.

Currently listening: "Younger Than We've Ever Been," Kathryn Calder