Archive for the ‘The Swan Tunes In’ category

SwanShadow Gives Thanks 14: As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

November 23, 2017

Each year, since this humble (in the classic sense of “low to the ground”) blog began in 2004, I’ve paused on Thanksgiving Day to take stock of the many things in my life and in the world about me for which I’m grateful. If I took the honest measure of my blessings, I’d be typing nonstop between Thanksgivings, and I’d never get much life lived. (Plus, these posts would get even more unbearably lengthy than they already are.)

So I hit upon the idea of choosing just 26 items, sorted alphabetically, to represent by means of metonymy the countless people and things for which I am grateful.

It’s been an interesting year. The Pirate Queen began a new job, which she enjoys, and where she is appreciated and fulfilled. I landed one of my most daunting voiceover projects this summer, survived a hectic busy season with my largest client, and checked a box off my career bucket list by booking a gig for one of the most recognizable companies on the planet. We traveled a bit, as we are wont to do.

The Daughter hit a pair of milestones: she, like the Pirate Queen, began a new job — one that she’s been chasing hard for a few years — and she and her beloved (formerly The Boyfriend, now The Fiance) got engaged. They’ll be married next May, prompting yet another nomenclatural change. The Daughter is  thrilled to begin these new chapters in her life, and I am thrilled — with a father’s wistful trepidation — for her. She wishes her mother was here to share her joy. I wish that too. But as the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. So walk on, we shall.

2017 will be forever remembered in the North Bay as the Year of the Firestorm. If you live hereabouts, you know — and perhaps lived through — the devastating wildfires that destroyed thousands of structures across Sonoma and Napa counties. The Daughter and her Grandma were evacuated from their home for a week. Many longtime friends and acquaintances don’t have homes to which to return. The city of Santa Rosa and the other hard-hit communities will rebuild, but the lives that were lost will never be restored, and the precious possessions of thousands of people will never truly be replaced. I can’t put into words the sadness I feel for those I know — and so many others I don’t know — whose lives were irrevocably altered, even as I also can’t express my relief that my precious Daughter’s life was spared.

Walk on, we shall, indeed.

But enough preamble. Here’s the fourteenth installment of my annual Thanksgiving list. Next year, should we all live to see it, I’ll have to add a whole new table in the Word document where I keep track of each year’s offerings. (The chart is seven columns wide, and this will fill out the second chart.) For now, here’s what I’m grateful for… among so much else.

Almond butter. The Pirate Queen brought a jar home the other day from Trader Joe’s. In a world awhirl with chaos, the simple pleasure of an almond butter and blackberry jelly sandwich is an amazing comfort.

Blue Öyster Cult. This year on LearnedLeague (the world’s toughest online trivia league, and why haven’t you asked me for a referral yet?), I was privileged to write a quiz about a band whose music I’ve grokked since my high school days. (Yes, we had music then, you young punk. With electric guitars and everything.) I’ve still got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.

Cabo San Lucas. Neither the Pirate Queen nor I had ever been to Cabo before our weeklong vacation there in February. We enjoyed our stay immensely. It’s not Hawaii — this was the first year in the last five that we didn’t visit my childhood home — but it’s lovely nonetheless. We’ll return, no doubt.

Draymond Green. He may be the third or fourth best player on the Warriors. He might also be the most irreplaceable. No one plays defense at a more intense level than Money 23. The Daughter has a picture of herself with him from a photo op before he rose to NBA All-Stardom.

Electricity. Thank you, Ben Franklin. (I’m still annoyed about that $100 bill question from Millionaire, though. Just so you know.)

Firefighters and First Responders. They couldn’t save every home and storefront in the North Bay, but they worked tirelessly and valiantly to save as many as they could, and to rescue and help as many people as possible. The community will never forget their efforts and dedication.

Gal Gadot. As a lifelong fan of Diana of Themyscira, I wasn’t fully convinced when the little-known Israeli actress landed the role. I’m convinced now. I’m glad Gal is our Wonder Woman. Change our minds, and change the world.

Hamilton. We had the opportunity to see the smash hit musical in San Francisco this summer. We did not throw away our shot. Few popular entertainments live up to their hype, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece gets as close as you’d imagine.

Ice hockey. I know, I know. I’m the guy who refers to hockey as “soccer on ice with sticks.” But thanks to the largesse of a good friend who’s a San Jose Sharks season ticketholder, we saw our first in-person game last season. It really is a heck of a sport to watch in person, in ways that don’t translate well on television. I’m a believer.

Jetways. I’m old enough to remember… okay, slow down; not the Wright brothers — but the days when you actually had to walk out onto the tarmac and climb a mobile staircase in order to board a plane at many airports. Give me the stretchable hallway any day.

Kilimanjaro. She rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.

Linseed oil. Also called flaxseed oil, it’s the stuff that keeps the insides of my cast iron skillets silky smooth and nonstick. Liquid gold, it is.

Monet and Munch. We toured a pair of spectacular art exhibitions this year: Claude Monet: The Early Years at the Legion of Honor, and Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at SFMOMA. In general, I’m not especially partial to Expressionist art, but seeing the work of these two great masters up close was powerfully impactful. I’m already looking forward to the next Monet exhibition here in two years.

NextDraft. Every day, I check in with several news sites and aggregators to keeptrack of what’s going on in this crazy world. Dave Pell’s NextDraft stands as one of the best curated aggregators I’ve come across. Dave skillfully mixes links to the day’s hard news with items that are merely fascinating. Always topical, always informative.

‘Oumuamua. “Strange visitor from another world” used to just mean Superman. Now, it’s the first object officially identified by astronomers as having traveled into our solar system from interstellar space. A cigar-shaped asteroid estimated at around 500 feet in length, its Hawaiian name means “scout” or “messenger.”

Patek Philippe. I narrated the first-ever full-scale North American exhibition by the world-renowned Swiss watchmaker this summer. In the process, I learned a ton about the craftspeople who design and build these incredible (and incredibly expensive) timepieces that can not only tell time, but in some instances play symphonies, display lunar cycles, and calculate dates hundreds of years into the future — all using mechanical, analog functionality. No microchip, no battery, just precision clockworks.

Quesadillas. Because hot, melty, delicious cheese.

Red Special, the one-of a kind guitar built by Brian May in his garage when he was a teenager, and which has lent its unique tone to Queen albums and concerts for more than four decades. I recently saw Brian wield his legendary axe in person for the first time in 35 years, and both guitar and guitarist amaze me still as much today as they did back then. If Brian and the Red Special had never given the world anything besides “Fat Bottomed Girls,” it would have been gift enough.

My Steel Will 1505, a.k.a. the Gekko, has featured as my everyday carry pocket knife for most of the past year. Solid, sturdy, and wicked sharp, with its maroon Micarta handle scales and black D2 steel blade, it’s both a workhorse and a creature of quiet beauty.

Thumbtack. The online service offers access to all kinds of local professionals, from electricians to mobile disc jockeys to personal trainers. Plus, they keep the Pirate Queen gainfully employed, for which we are enormously thankful.

“Unwritten”
Feel the rain on your skin.
No one else can feel it for you —
Only you can let it in.
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips.
Drench yourself in words unspoken;
Live your life with arms wide open;
Today is where your book begins —
The rest is still unwritten.

Vision. Last night, I stood on a BART train next to a blind man accompanied by his golden retriever guide dog. Even with my acute myopia and astigmatism — easily remedied by contact lenses — I am blessed that, unlike that unfortunate gentleman, I can open my eyes and see the world. Today, I’m not taking that for granted.

Women — and I have some wonderful ones in my life: the Pirate Queen, The Daughter, her Grandma, and more treasured friends and colleagues than I can list, along with the memory of KJ and the three decades we shared together. Our culture is currently awash with a tsunami of women finally feeling emboldened to speak out against the abuse, harassment, and disrespect they’ve experienced, and I applaud and support them. Be heard, sisters. Your voices matter.

XTC. Quirky, edgy, and impossible to categorize, Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, and company formed one of the most underrated bands in the history of pop music. “Generals and Majors,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “The Mayor of Simpleton,” and the controversial “Dear God” — even if you didn’t understand all of the ideas (or didn’t agree with them), you had to admire the style.

Yeast — fueling bakeries and breweries for thousands of years. Except during Passover.

Zapper — that’s what I call my racket-shaped electric wand that strikes fear into the hearts of flying pests that dare disturb the sanctity of my abode. I’m perfectly content to let buzzing bugs buzz outdoors in their own environment, as long as they don’t attack me. But if you come into my airspace, critter, I’ve got some voltage waiting for you.

And as always, friend reader, I’m grateful for you, and the time you take to peruse my rambling prose. May you and yours find much for which to be appreciative on this Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

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SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Triskaidekaphobia Edition

November 24, 2016

Welcome to the thirteenth installment in my annual outpouring of gratitude. Each Thanksgiving since 2004, I’ve devoted this space to a reflection on some of the many people, places, and things that have graced my life. Because counting my blessings can become an infinite task once I get started, I’ve developed the device of choosing 26 representative items — one for each letter of the English alphabet — to stand as testament to the overwhelming abundance that I can only begin to address.

Without further ceremony, here are the things I’m thankful for on Thanksgiving 2016.

Antenna International. If you’ve ever toured a museum or other public attraction and used the audio guide, you’ve heard the work of this fine company, which specializes in the production of said audio guides. I recently had the privilege of narrating Antenna’s audio guide to Vikings: Beyond the Legend, an exhibition currently on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center. If you’re in southwest Ohio or the vicinity, go check it out.

Beef Jerky Store. A highlight of my annual trip to Las Vegas is a pilgrimage to this downtown establishment adjacent to the Fremont Street Experience, where I load up my suitcase with tasty snacks. When I was a keiki (that’s “child” to your mainlanders) in Hawaii, we called a place like this a crack seed store — “crack seed” being the Hawaiian term for various kinds of dried fruits, nuts, and other dehydrated edibles. Visiting the Beef Jerky Store takes me back to those long-ago childhood days.

Comixology. This year, I officially transitioned my comic book reading from paper to digital. Comixology is the app for that. (It’s been an adjustment, but I’m resolute.)

DubNation. What a year we’ve had as Golden State Warriors fans! Our team set an NBA record for success with an unprecedented 73-9 record; missed repeating as world champions by an eyelash; then in the offseason added Kevin Durant, one of the greatest players in the game, to a roster that already featured three superstars in two-time MVP Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. After decades of wallowing in mediocrity and worse, it’s a grand time to be a citizen of DubNation.

Evernote. I don’t know where I’d be without this app. Certainly dinners at our house would be far less interesting, because Evernote is where all of my recipes reside.

Family. As always, I’m grateful more than anything for those who love me most — the Pirate Queen, The Daughter, Grandma, Studio Assistant Tazz, and KJ, whose memory lives forever in heart and spirit. My extended ohana also includes numerous friends and connections, both nearby and far away.

Graboids. That’s our household nickname for reach tools. They come in handy for picking up dog toys and other items that middle-aged backs and knees hate bending for.

Hillary Clinton. The election didn’t go her way, but I’m still proud that she earned my vote.

Inkwell Awards. Founded by longtime comic book inker Bob Almond, the Inkwells annually acknowledge some of the most important — but least heralded — artists in the field.

Juice. Because who doesn’t love juice? Make mine cranberry.

Kamala Harris. California’s attorney general will make an outstanding impact as our new junior Senator. I was honored to voice several of Ms. Harris’s campaign ads this season. I don’t think she got elected because of my work, but I’m not saying I didn’t help a little. Maybe.

Luke Cage. Just when you think that Marvel Studios and Netflix couldn’t possibly outdo themselves after the stellar Jessica Jones, they follow up with a series that takes street-level superheroics up yet another notch. Terrific performances by Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, and Mike Colter as the titular Power Man made this a must-binge.

Mcusta. Two of the most attractive specimens in my folding knife collection come from this Seki City, Japan bladeworks. I could admire my Mcusta Katana and Tactility all day long. Some days, I do.

NewPark 12. The glorious IMAX theater in our new local multiplex even enthused the Pirate Queen — generally not a fan of the cinema experience — about going out to the movies. It’s the first time I ever sat in a theater seat that I wanted to take home to my living room after the film ended.

OtterBox. I dropped and shattered my iPhone this summer. (Thanks, AT&T, for the speedy and relatively hassle-free replacement.) The sturdy case on my new device will, one hopes, prevent future mishaps of a similar nature.

President Barack Obama. Thank you, Mr. President, for eight years of honorable service. I truly believe that history will be far more kind to your legacy than the obstructionist Congress of your second term has been.

Quatermass and the Pit. One of my all-time favorite weird sci-fi classics. You’ve probably seen it here in the U.S. under the title Five Million Years to Earth. Basically, we’re all the descendants of giant grasshoppers from Mars.

Ray’s Crab Shack. A local spot serving up mass quantities of delicious seafood. Don your plastic bib, glove up, and get your crustacean on.

Steely Dan. Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend, that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen got me through college, and many melancholy hours since. There are 66 songs on the Dan’s seven classic-period albums (beginning with Can’t Buy a Thrill and concluding with Gaucho), and not a single one of them sucks. I don’t know any other musical act about whom I can make that statement. 1977’s Aja ranks as one of the finest albums in the history of recorded music.

Treebeard. In my studio-office stands a gnarled walking stick that I acquired at a Renaissance Faire many, many years ago. It’s outfitted with a wrapped leather hand grip and bears the carved face of a bewhiskered wizard at its head. I call it Treebeard. I believe there may be magic in it.

Universal Studios Hollywood. I spent a week there early this year, as an alternate contestant for a TV quiz show that ended up not requiring my services. But I got to stay in a nice hotel, tour a theme park, preview the then-unopened-to-the-public Harry Potter attraction, see a couple of movies, hang out for two days in the soundstage where The Voice is taped, and make several cool new friends — all at a TV production company’s expense. You could have a worse vacation.

Van Jones. The CNN commentator kept it real in the midst of insanity on Election Night 2016. Thanks for eloquently saying what many of us were thinking, Mr. Jones.

Waimea Canyon. As has been frequently noted in this space, I spent a goodly chunk of my childhood in Hawaii. Until this spring, however, I’d never visited the island of Kauai. If you’ve never stood on the edge of “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” you owe it to yourself to get there at least once before you die. (Going after you die probably won’t have the same effect.)

Xenozoic. Mark Schultz’s sumptuous adventure comic — best known to non-aficionados as the source material for the fondly remembered animated series Cadillacs and Dinosaurs — remains a classic of the medium. The collected omnibus volume is the closest book to my desk on my office-studio bookshelf.

Yoda. “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Live by these words, should you.

Zuckerberg. Thanks for keeping the Pirate Queen gainfully employed for the past year, Mark.

I am eternally grateful to you, friend reader, for your ongoing support of these random ramblings. May your life overflow with reasons to give thanks.

On television, everything dies

March 29, 2010

As evidence of the title of this post, I offer the following three exhibits.

Last Wednesday, Robert Culp died.

Robert Culp first became a TV star in the late 1950s as the lead in a Western series entitled Trackdown. Culp played a Texas Ranger whose job involved — as the more mentally nimble among you will already have surmised — tracking down criminals and bringing them to justice. Trackdown, which ran for two seasons, is probably less well remembered than the other Western series that spun off from it: Wanted: Dead or Alive, the show that launched Steve McQueen on his road to superstardom.

Forgettable though Trackdown was, Culp’s next series would be the stuff of TV legend. I Spy featured Culp as espionage agent Kelly Robinson, who masked his real occupation under the guise of a professional tennis player. Robinson’s fellow spy, Alexander “Scotty” Scott, played by Bill Cosby, masqueraded as Kelly’s personal trainer and coach. I Spy became the first network series to share top billing between Caucasian and African-American actors, and to portray a true partnership of peers between men of different races (even though the “I” of the show’s title was presumed to be Robinson — then again, We Spy wouldn’t have made as catchy a title).

Nearly two decades later, Culp returned to weekly TV on The Greatest American Hero, as the tough-as-nails FBI man who becomes the “handler” of a hapless superhero played by William Katt. More recently, Culp had a recurring role on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, playing the father-in-law of Ray Romano’s put-upon sportswriter. In around all of the above acting roles, Culp also built a respectable career as a director and screenwriter.

Last Thursday, At the Movies — the long-running syndicated film review program — died. (Or was canceled, which is how shows die on TV.)

It’s fair to say that At the Movies had already died three deaths before Disney pulled the plug. It died first in 1999, when Gene Siskel, the Chicago Tribune critic who originally occupied the aisle seat opposite Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, passed away from cancer. Richard Roeper — who, quite frankly, I never much cared for — replaced Siskel the following year.

The show died a second time in 2006, when Ebert’s health difficulties (originating with surgery to remove a cancerous salivary gland) escalated to the point that he could no longer appear on camera. An endless stream of guest hosts — some fine, several wretched — filled in the empty chair next to Roeper over the next couple of years.

(I will presume that most of my readers — savvy bunch that you are — already know that Ebert subsequently lost both the ability to speak and the ability to intake food and drink orally due to further complications from this surgery. Uncle Roger would want you to know, however, that he is alive and alert and continuing to write prolifically — as lead critic for the Sun-Times, on his own website, and on Twitter, where he posts with prodigious frequency.)

At the Movies suffered its third death in 2008, when Ben Mankiewicz, the Vanna White of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, and Ben Lyons, an entertainment reporter for the E! channel whose primary qualification as a film reviewer was genetic (his father, Jeffrey Lyons — along with film historian Neal Gabler — replaced Siskel and Ebert on Sneak Previews, the PBS show S&E left in 1981 to start what evolved into At the Movies), took over for the medically unavailable Ebert and the dismissed Roeper. With the two Bens occupying the storied seats, At the Movies crashed and burned like nothing had since the Hindenburg. Disney realized its error after one grotesque season, ditching the Bens in favor of the perfectly acceptable A.O. Scott (from the New York Times) and Michael Phillips (from the Chicago Tribune), but the fatal damage had been done.

At the Movies will limp on for the remainder of this final season with Scott and Phillips at the helm. By rights, the show should have been laid mercifully to rest with poor Gene Siskel.

Finally, last Friday, 24 died.

When it exploded onto American TV in 2001, 24 was unlike anything viewers had seen before: A fictional 24-hour day that unfolded in real time, over the span of 24 hour-long episodes. (Well, “real time” in TV terms. Part of the fun was noting the many events that transpired with impossible swiftness; i.e., cross-Los Angeles car trips accomplished in 10 minutes.)

The show centered around the perfect hero for the New Millennium: Jack Bauer (played to teeth-gritting perfection by Kiefer Sutherland), a rule-bending intelligence agent employed by a super-secret federal antiterrorist unit. Bauer confronted national security crises and enemies of the state and beat, shot, tortured, and shouted them to death in the space of a single revolution of the planet. In that groundbreaking first season, Bauer saved the life of Senator David Palmer, who by Season Two had become the nation’s first African-American President — foreshadowing (and in the mind of more than one social scientist, helping to facilitate) the real-life election of Barack Obama to the White House by the end of the decade.

Jack Bauer has had seven more “really bad days” since Season One, the last of which is playing out Monday nights on FOX at this writing. It was difficult for many viewers — yours truly among them — to see how the show’s novel premise would survive repetition, but for the most part, 24 has worked. If you buy into the premise, are sufficiently forgiving to overlook continuity errors the size of Martian craters, and most importantly, get into Jack Bauer and his ever-changing supporting cast (the show’s cast turns over almost completely from one season to the next, with Bauer and tech wizard Chloe O’Brian –played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, who signed on in Season Three — the only consistent mainstays), then 24‘s seat-of-the-pants thrill-ride can prove addictive.

Now, as Jack has bellowed repeatedly (and to much-lampooned effect) over the years… “We’re running out of time!”

And so, indeed, it must be. Because on TV, everything dies eventually.

Except maybe The Simpsons.

The Swan Tunes In: Justified

March 24, 2010

I’m a notoriously tough hombre to convince of anything, but after a mere two episodes, I’m ready to say this straight out…

Justified is the best show on television right now.

The words “right now” are key to the above sentence, because TV’s best drama (and, not coincidentally, another FX series), Sons of Anarchy, is presently on hiatus. When Sons returns, it will give Justified a worthy challenge. Although, the nature of things being what it is, I’m guessing that FX will work it so that Justified will have completed its first season by the time Sons resurfaces for its fourth. No point in cluttering up the schedule with too much great TV.

In one key measure, Justified already surpasses Sons of Anarchy — its focus on one exceptionally conceived character. Sons, an ensemble drama with a ginormous cast, has a boatload of players and personalities to deal with each week, and its ostensible lead character, motorcycle gang leader Jackson “Jax” Teller, is rarely the most interesting element in the show. Justified has done a terrific job of populating its supporting cast, but they’re exactly that — supporting cast. Everything hinges on the man at the center of the action (and of almost every scene): Raylan Givens, Deputy United States Marshal, played to understated perfection by Timothy Olyphant.

The character of Raylan — adapted for TV from a trio of short stories by legendary thriller scribe Elmore Leonard — is a pastiche of several disparate elements. He’s one part Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (the cop whose philosophy is “Shooting’s all right, as long as the right people get shot”), one part Dennis Weaver’s McCloud (the Stetson-wearing, smarter-than-he-looks walking anachronism), and one part Tommy Lee Jones’s relentless Sam Gerard (from the films The Fugitive and U.S. Marshals). There’s also a lot in Raylan that’s pure Elmore Leonard, especially his penchant for pithy dialogue. Leonard can be a difficult author to translate to the screen, and to television in particular, but the creative team behind Justified hits all of the right notes, at least so far.

Here’s the set-up. While posted to the Marshal Service’s Miami field office (where his cowboy hat and boots make him as inconspicuous as a McDonald’s on the moon), Raylan’s latest gunning down of a suspect earns him a swift reassignment to a faraway jurisdiction — Harlan County, Kentucky, where Raylan was born and raised. (I wondered at first why the Marshals Service would maintain a presence in this hillbilly backwater. The reason became clear in the second episode: there’s a federal prison there — the U.S. Penitentiary at Big Sandy.) Raylan is less than enthused about his new station — he’d sworn when he left Harlan that he’d never return — but he accepts his medicine with wry resignation.

Moving to Harlan reunites Raylan with an old acquaintance, no-nonsense Chief Deputy Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), and provides him a pair of junior associates, former Army Ranger Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts) and tightly wound Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel). The move also places Raylan in uncomfortably close proximity to his ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea) and his high school girlfriend Ava (Joelle Carter), who’s since married the brother of Raylan’s childhood pal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), now a small-time thug running a white supremacist gang. Raylan’s first case in his new/old digs brings him into conflict with Boyd, who thinks he may have an edge on his former friend, but is proven wrong. (“If you make me pull, I’ll put you down,” Raylan warns Boyd, who eventually makes him pull and gets put down, albeit not fatally.)

Justified works for two reasons. First, the writing (initially by Graham Yost, who developed the series with input from Elmore Leonard) is stellar. Second, Timothy Olyphant owns the lead role, taking a character that could veer off into shallow caricature and making him multilayered, conflicted, and believably human. Olyphant’s Raylan is no superman — he’s tough, cool, and beyond competent at what he does, but he gets outmaneuvered by the bad guys at times (even though he wins in the end) and is guilty of occasional grotesque lapses in judgment (while transporting a prisoner, Raylan lets the felon drive while he surfs the ‘Net on his iPhone, resulting in predictable misfortune). Most importantly for television, Olyphant makes Raylan compelling and likable, guaranteeing that viewers will keep tuning in to see what he does next.

(And — speaking strictly from a disinterested heterosexual male perspective, mind you — I suspect that many female audience members will find Mr. Olyphant easy on the eyes.)

Clearly, two episodes do not a Hall of Fame series make. It remains to be seen whether Olyphant, Yost and company can maintain — and continue to elevate — the high level of quality they’ve established to this point. The show is going to need to flesh out its remaining characters, who at this point are little better than names, faces, and attitudes. It also needs to find ways to keep Raylan’s off-the-job life interesting once the “hometown boy returns” storyline plays out.

But I’ll say this: I can’t recall the last time I enjoyed two hours of scripted television as much as I enjoyed the first two episodes of Justified. The creators of this show have bought themselves a ton of good will with their opening salvo. Now we’ll see whether they’ll build on it, or burn it.

Justified airs on FX Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. Your Uncle Swan gives it nine tailfeathers out of a possible ten, just in case he needs a feather to fan himself with when the action gets heated. If you like tough, hard-boiled drama, you should check it out.

(Caveat: As FX’s series often do, Justified pushes the envelope of adult content — language, violence, etc. — as far as basic cable and the FCC will permit. You’ve been warned.)

Idol 2010: Your Top 12 finalists, America

March 16, 2010

When last we left those crazy kids on American Idol, there were twice as many of them. Now that we’re down to the Top 12, let’s see how the competition has shaped up.

First off, my prognosticating skills positively reek this season. In forecasting the six female singers who’d make it this far, I batted a meager .500 — which would be a stupendous batting average, actually, if this were Major League Baseball, which it isn’t. I guessed correctly that we’d still have Crystal Bowersox, Siobhan Magnus, and Katie Stevens with us. I’m somewhat, yet not entirely, surprised that Paige Miles has survived. I am flabbergasted to still be looking at Didi Benami, and especially Lacey Brown, whom I thought should have been one of the first eliminations.

I did slightly better with the male contestants, accurately choosing four of the final six: Casey James, Lee Dewyze, Andrew Garcia, and Michael “Big Mike” Lynche. That the cute but out-of-his-depth Aaron Kelly has pulled enough votes out of America’s grandmas and tweens to get to this level doesn’t shock me. That Tim Urban — who has the least talent of any contestant of either gender, possibly in the history of the series — hasn’t yet been shown the door is less a surprise than it is a crime against civilization.

Of the people who have gotten the boot, the greatest disappointment for me was Lilly Scott, whose hippie-chic coffeehouse style made her, at the very least, interesting. That latter word I’d also have applied to Todrick Hall, who wasn’t the best singer in the bunch, but had a certain flamboyance (in the literal, not the encoded, sense of the term) that made him stand out. But… life moves on.

That said, here’s how I’m ranking the chances of the dozen left standing.

12. Tim Urban. Hokey smoke, Bullwinkle — how did this guy get this far? Perhaps the most ironic point about young Mr. Urban is his name, given that he’s about as urban as I am hillbilly, which is to say, not much at all. Unfortunately for viewers, Tim consistently attempts to prove this irony — for example, by attempting a reggae version of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” If you’re going to pull off a Rasta-inflected treatment of a bluesy rocker, I think you might have actually wanted to have met a Jamaican.

11. Lacey Brown. Not only can the girl not sing a lick, but everything about her screams “fraud,” from her stagy mannerisms to her clunky, melodramatic phrasing. Should have been sent back to Denny’s with a name badge and a book of order tickets weeks ago.

10. Didi Benami. My opinion of Didi hasn’t changed one iota since we discussed her with the Top 24. I find her affected cheerleader personality grating, and her singing, while not dreadful, is merely ordinary. I suspect that she’ll place higher than tenth, but these are my numbers, and that’s the one I’m giving her.

9. Paige Miles. Paige has a ton of voice, and one of these years, she might be capable of using it effectively. Right now, she’s just a cheerful kid playing with a big, dangerous toy.

8. Aaron Kelly. Randy Jackson was off his nut when he compared Aaron to Justin Timberlake — except for the fact that, as I observed a while back, Aaron would fit perfectly in a remake of The Mickey Mouse Club, where Justin (along with Britney, Christina, J.C., Ryan, and a gaggle of their peers) got started. In terms of talent, Aaron’s more like the Jonas Brother who got cut from the varsity squad. Nice try, son.

7. Katie Stevens. It’s almost a shame that Idol‘s producers put Katie through to the main cast this year. If she came back in a couple of years with some seasoning, a little maturity, and a smattering of life experience, she might be a real contender. At 17, she looks like an overgrown veteran of Toddlers and Tiaras. Or Katharine McPhee’s baby sister.

6. Casey James. Bucky Covington, The Sequel. Coasting on flowing locks and scruffy charm. He’s all hat and no cattle. Kara lusts for him, though, and the ladies will enjoy gawking at him for yet a while longer.

5. Andrew Garcia. I’m probably the only person in America outside of the immediate Garcia family who rates Andrew this high. The fact is, despite his struggles in recent weeks, I like the unique quality of his voice. Someone once said that his greatest treasures were words he left unspoken. I’m guessing that Andrew wishes he’d left unsung that acoustic cover of “Straight Up” from Hollywood Week, because he’s been trying — and mostly failing — to live up to it ever since. If the guy who busted out that transcendent performance ever resurfaces, Andrew could soar to this height. If not, he’ll be eliminated. Soon.

4. Lee Dewyze. I sense that the folks at 19 Entertainment would like to see Lee erupt into the next Chris Daughtry. Frankly, I don’t think he’s got Daughtry’s ability, or — just as significantly — Daughtry’s self-assurance. Lee has solid potential, but his nerves and inner demons stand in his way. Being able to do it is one thing. Being able to bring it with moxie and fire on a ginormous stage with a live audience and millions of people staring through their television screens is another kettle of fish entirely. I don’t think Lee’s kept his bait warm.

3. Big Mike Lynche. Kara DioGuardi said on Jay Leno’s show last night that she thinks Big Mike will win this season. He’s certainly fun to watch — although, to be frank, I don’t think his voice is all that special — and he’s a great story, what with the loving wife and the adorable newborn at home. It’s possible that the two ladies ahead of him may end up splitting a lot of the same voting demographic, and Mike could slip past them. I’m just not convinced yet that America wants another Ruben Studdard.

2. Siobhan Magnus. Let’s put it right out there: This chick is seven kinds of weird. But underlying the bizarre fashion sense, the nose ring, the odd facial expressions, and the ditzy-kooky Cyndi Lauperesque personality, she has two things that I admire: a terrific singing voice, and her own genuine style. I never know exactly what Siobhan is going to do from one week to the next, but I’m always positive that it will be worth watching, and hearing. I don’t know what a Siobhan Magnus record album would sound like, but I know it would be entertaining.

1. Crystal Bowersox. I believed the first time I heard her sing that Crystal would win Idol this year. Nothing I’ve heard since has altered that early opinion. Crystal knows exactly what her musical niche is, and she’s eminently comfortable inhabiting it. She may be the most complete performer, right out of the gate, that Idol has ever embraced. Which may be the one challenge that could derail Crystal — the audience’s sense that she’s not growing or changing much from one week to the next. Now, that worked once — Taylor Hicks brought a singular kind of talent to the Idol party in Season Five, and rode pretty much the same pony he came in on all the way to the title. Taylor’s lack of popular success in the years since, however, shows how quickly the public tires of a one-trick pony, even if the trick is a good one. Crystal would be well advised to whip out a new trick now and then, just so the audience doesn’t get bored.

That’s how I’m seeing it thus far. But as noted, I’ve been wrong before. Recently.

A couple of additional observations…

New judge Ellen DeGeneres has added an entertaining element to the show. Ellen’s natural likability overcomes the (often glaringly evident) fact that she doesn’t know music from a performing or technical perspective. Then again, neither do most of the people casting votes, so Ellen often speaks for them. If it were up to me, I’d rather have experts offering the commentary, but this is TV, after all.

Idol has been remarkably free of controversy this season. While it’s true that there are a number of suspect performers left in the Top 12, it’s equally true that none of the people dismissed in the first half of the competition represented a tragic injustice. What that means for viewers is a lack of suspense. Unless some contestant unleashes a supernova of musical brilliance heretofore unhinted, Idol 2010 should come down to a playoff between Crystal and Siobhan, with either Lee or Big Mike a distant third.

We’ll update once again when the field has been pared to the final few.

SwanShadow… out.

What it was, was Oscar

March 8, 2010

Congratulations! We survived another Oscarcast. Observations follow.

At least it wasn’t Ray Milland and Rosey Grier: The two-headed host — Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin — turned out to be a dreadful idea. Not because either was terrible, but because they simply didn’t work smoothly and effectively together. I don’t know whether Martin and Baldwin were poorly rehearsed, or just suffering from awkward chemistry. One host or the other would have been adequate, if not especially scintillating — Martin hosted the awards solo in 2000 and 2002, in not-particularly-memorable fashion — but the combination fell flat.

The sound of one man yawning: None of the major awards turned out to be a huge surprise, unless you really thought the Academy was going to pass up a chance to stick it to notoriously unpopular James “King of the World” Cameron by honoring his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and her magnum opus. The favorites in each of the big categories triumphed.

Double the displeasure: Expanding the Best Picture category to ten nominees was, as expected, a pointless drag on the production. No one really thought that there were more than five real contenders; namely, the films represented in the Best Director category — the victorious The Hurt Locker, Avatar, and dark horses Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. Padding the show with twice as many introductory film clips merely took up air space.

Up with people: In a refreshing change, all four of the acting winners gave engaging, entertaining speeches. (I can’t prove it with verified test results, but I suspect that Jeff Bridges’s Dude-esque ramble may have been… what shall we say… chemically enhanced.) Equally refreshing, all four were people that most viewers would be glad to see win.

Sore loser: Quentin Tarantino, who looked as though Kathryn Bigelow had vomited in his lap when she won Best Director and he didn’t. I dig your films, QT, but your sportsmanship sucks.

Spare me the song and dance: We didn’t have to sit through performances of each of the Best Song hopefuls this year. A welcome omission, because seriously, when was the last time all five of the nominated songs were actually good? On the other hand, someone thought it made sense to stage an elaborate interpretive dance number incorporating music from the Original Score nominees. (Funny, I didn’t realize there was breakdancing in Sherlock Holmes.) Redeeming the moment, winning composer Michael Giacchino (Up) gave one of the night’s best acceptance speeches, encouraging young people to pursue their creative impulses and not allow naysayers to convince them that they’re wasting their time.

Didn’t work: The trend, continued from last year’s Oscarcast, of having each of the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees regaled with a speech by another celebrity. With the rare exception of an unexpected star turn by someone like Oprah Winfrey (who feted Gabourey Sidibe, nominated for Precious), these fawning tributes only serve to make both audience and nominees uncomfortable.

Worked, in kind of an off-kilter way: The tribute to recently deceased writer-director John Hughes, which culminated in the appearance onstage of numerous actors and actresses who became stars via Hughes’s legendary run of hit films in the 1980s. Cool to see these folks together in one place, but man… are we all getting old, or what?

Speaking of getting old: I understand why they do it, but I grow annoyed with the increasing insertion into the Oscarcast of no-talent young stars with no genuine cinematic credibility (i.e., the ubiquitous Miley Cyrus), just to draw in the teen audience. Uncle Oscar says: Get off my lawn, you meddling kids.

The death of me: I’m always curious to see who gets tagged with what I call the “Dead People Gig,” introducing the memorial segment honoring movie folks who’ve shuffled off this mortal coil since the last Oscar ceremony. This year, it was Demi Moore pulling double-death duty (she was also one of the participants in the John Hughes tribute). James Taylor performed an acoustic rendition of “In My Life” while the clips rolled. For once, there was no moment of shock generated by the appearance of someone I didn’t know had died. Interestingly, Michael Jackson — whose filmography consists basically of The Wiz — made the cut, while Farrah Fawcett — mostly known for TV work, but she did make several films, including such “classics” as Logan’s Run and Saturn 3 — missed.

Fashion forward: Oscars 2010 proved rather low-key on the sartorial front. Understated glamour was the norm this year, so there were fewer what in the name of Vera Wang was THAT? moments on the red carpet than at previous Oscarcasts. The most egregious offenders were Sarah Jessica Parker, whose strapless gown came equipped with an enormous silver breastplate that resembled a leftover centerpiece from an office Christmas party, and Charlize Theron, wearing what looked like two pink-frosted cinnamon rolls stuck to her bosom. Best-dressed of the evening included several of the usual suspects — Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Queen Latifah. Jennifer Lopez’s lovely pink dress would have gained high honors, if not for its ridiculous train. Likewise, Best Actress winner Sandra Bullock lost points for her garish lipstick.

The voice of choice: As she did last year, voice actress Gina Tuttle contributed a pleasant and unobtrusive announcing job. And if Gina ever gets tired of that gig, Oscar producers… I’m in the book.

Vancouver memories and Canada dreams

March 1, 2010

I miss the Winter Olympics already.

Miscellaneous thoughts and observations from the 21st Winter Games in Vancouver…

The start of the Games was overshadowed by the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luger from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, in a crash during a pre-Games training run on the day of the opening ceremonies. All of the sliding events (luge, bobsleigh, and skeleton) were subsequently altered, with the men starting from the (lower) women’s launch point and the women starting at the junior-level gate. Even with these adjustments, we saw a higher-than-usual number of wipeouts in these events, even among the most skilled competitors.

The Canadian women’s curling team had a member who was five months pregnant. Seriously, if you can do it at a world-class level when you’re heavily gravid, it’s really not much of a sport.

Speaking of curling, a shout-out to local Sonoma County company Loudmouth Golf, suppliers of wackily patterned pants for the Norwegian men’s curling squad. Seriously, if you can do it at a world-class level wearing ludicrous trousers, it’s really not much of a sport.

Canadian Joannie Rochette skated the short program of her life, less than three days after her mother’s sudden death from a heart attack. Joannie’s free skate was equally dazzling, netting her a bronze medal and the adulation of millions.

Bode Miller skiied home with a complete set of medals — a gold in super-combined, a silver in super-giant slalom, and bronze in the downhill. In so doing, he actually managed to seem slightly less full of himself than he did four years ago in Torino, where he was a total bust.

Memo to NBC’s Bob Costas: Put. The Just for Men. Down. Although, to Bob’s credit, his dye jobs looked better in Vancouver than they did two years ago at the Summer Games in Beijing.

Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White and Jeret “Speedy” Peterson busted out impossible-seeming aerial moves in the snowboard halfpipe and freestyle skiing, respectively, proving that if you want to be really good at anything, you need a snappy nickname.

Women’s halfpipe starred its own pair of tomatoes — silver medalist Hannah Teter and bronze medalist Kelly Clark.

Thanks to Bill Demong, Johnny Spillane, and their Nordic Combined teammates, Team USA won three medals in a class of events where no American had so much as sniffed the podium in, like, forever.

Has there ever been a more amazing female figure skater than South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na? If so, I must have missed seeing her. In technique, in artistry, and in power, Yu-Na was so many light-years ahead of the rest of the competitors that I almost felt embarrassed for the field.

Lost amid the highly deserved excitement over Apolo Ohno’s becoming the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian ever was the fact that his close friend Shani Davis won Team USA’s only speed-skating gold, in the men’s 1000 meters. Shani added a silver in the 1500. The most heart-warming story in speed skating came via J.R. Celski, who earned a bronze in 1500 meter short-track (thanks to a spectacular wipeout involving two Korean competitors) in his first competition after a horrific injury last fall.

We love Steve Holcomb and the Night Train, the gold-winning team in men’s four-man bobsleigh (and yes, that’s how they spell it at the Olympics). Steve’s celebratory “Holkie Dance”? Not so much.

Smackdown of the Games: Evan Lysacek’s win over the Ivan Drago of figure skating, Evgeni Plushenko.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was so incensed by his country’s lack of gold medals in Vancouver that he called for the ouster of Russia’s sports ministry. Tough sledding (pun intended) since that Soviet machine went away, eh, Vlad?

Proving that she does, in fact, know her shin from Shinola, Lindsay Vonn overcame a much-publicized injury to bag gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-G. Her teammate Julia Mancuso took home a pair of silver medals, in the downhill and super-combined.

Seth Wescott repeated as the only man ever to win gold in Olympic snowboard cross, a sport that I am convinced recruits its participants from insane asylums.

Halfpipe bronze medalist Scott Lago was sent home by the U.S. Olympic Committee, after photos appeared on the Internet showing Scott and a female companion engaging in risque business with his medal.

Memo to NBC’s makeup department: The technician who worked on the broadcast crew at the figure skating events needs to be fired.

Hannah Kearney and pink-tressed Shannon Bahrke displayed knees of steel as they pounded to gold and bronze, respectively, in women’s moguls. Bryon Wilson notched a bronze in the men’s version. How anyone could stand up after that event is beyond me.

Silver was the color of the season for Team USA hockey, with both the men’s and women’s teams coming in second to the homestanding Canadian squads. The USA men drove the Maple Leafers to overtime in the gold-medal game, with a last-minute goal by Zach Parise of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Buffalo Sabres goalkeeper Ryan Miller battled valiantly between the pipes, earning recognition as the hockey tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Perhaps the most shocking moment of the Games — aside from the Kumaritashvili and Rochette tragedies — occurred in the men’s 10,000-meter speed skating event. Dutch skater Sven Kramer lost the gold medal following his disqualification after the Netherlands’ coach, Gerard Kemkers, directed Kramer into the incorrect lane for the race’s final lap. An understandably angry Kramer appeared inconsolable after the race. If the Dutch have an equivalent to the witness protection program, Kemkers is probably in it right now.

I don’t believe ice dancing is really a sport — it’s more of a competitive exhibition — but silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White did us proud nonetheless, as did fourth-place finishers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto.

Neither of our teenage figure skaters, Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt, came home with a medal (they finished fourth and seventh), but both gave their finest performances to date. Watch out for Mirai in 2014 — she’ll be on the podium for sure.

Will we ever forget the image of the malfunctioning hydraulics on the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies? Good on the Canadians for poking fun at themselves by revisiting the misfire at the end of the Games.

And oh yeah… how did we ever watch the Olympics before HDTV?