Saturday, October 10, 2009

TV Power Rankings

I’ve seen a couple of other people doing a ‘Power Ranking’ for TV shows, and I’m going to start doing that every couple of weeks, as the schedule allows. It’ll be a good chance for me to write up a bit about all the shows I’m watching without having to review every episode.

Right now, I’m watching a whole bunch of shows, mostly comedies. I think there’s a lot of good stuff on, but I would love to find a couple more great dramas out there. Hopefully next year’s return of Big Love and Lost will alleviate that, and I should be able to catch up on season two of Breaking Bad by then as well. I may sample Flash Forward, and try to catch up on that in the next couple of weeks, but it has the look of a show that I try and make it through a few episodes before losing interest in.

Anyway, here’s the shows I’m actually watched, ranked in order of enjoyment.

1. Mad Men - No question this is the top show on the air, and with each episode that airs, it strengthens its case to be one of the top shows of all time. This season has been the best yet, and each episode is a work of art. Last week’s wasn’t the series’ best episode, but did feature the wonderful role playing between Don and Betty in Rome, and all the glamour and atmosphere of a Fellini film.

2. Parks and Recreation - Unlike a lot of people, I really liked the abbreviated first season of the show that aired last Spring. I think the series built a really interesting world, and memorable characters in short order. The cast is really deep, with Aziz Ansari as a particular standout. And this season has just kept getting better. I think it has a grounding and emotional reality that the American office never had, and has managed to tell a wide variety of stories within what looks like a potentially narrow premise. The Dave/Leslie stuff this week was gold, as was Anne’s fake date persona. This show just keeps getting better and better.

3. Curb Your Enthusiasm - I’ve never loved Curb in the way that I loved Seinfeld. I think Curb is a lot more formulaic and predictable, but this season has been consistently solid. The second episode was the funniest, with the instantly classic “Fuck you Larry David, that’s some bullshit!” But, the third episode, with the Seinfeld cast reunited, was my favorite so far. Seeing Larry and Jerry interacting was amazing, and I’m eager to see how that arc develops over the course of the season.

4. How I Met Your Mother - I forgave the show a lot of its flaws when watching it in a binge viewing earlier this year. Watching the show week to week, the episodes can feel a bit slight. It’s always funny, but I don’t feel the emotional connection to the characters I had when watching it as a whole. This season has had some inconsistent character stuff with the Barney/Robin relationship, but has been generally sharp, and always leaves me wanting more. The only major misfire was the Ted dating the same girl storyline which felt like a retread of storylines from earlier seasons.

5. Bored to Death - This show may pander a bit to the hipster in me that loves all the local references and slacking Jason Schwartzman persona. In the same way that Entourage is, it’s a bit lax on drama and stakes, but the show is much more entertaining than Entourage and is building a nice little world. A lot of shows are just about people hanging out, so maybe that’s enough. I’m not sure how the show will develop long term, but for now, it’s got great mood and a strong cast carrying it.

6. The Office - This show is still frustrating for me because, even after six years, I still find the characters directly translated from the British Office annoying and problematic. The beauty of the British show was the relentless realism. That might be too much to sustain for six years, but the Michael Scott character all too often veers out of reality, sacrificing the emotional grounding of the series, and making the jokes less funny. You need this world to be believable to make most of the jokes work. Similarly, I find Pam and Jim annoyingly perfect, but the supporting cast is top notch. Ed Helms is great, and I’d love to see more screentime spent on him, Erin, Kelly and Ryan. The show’s still entertaining, but isn’t as sharp as the best comedies on TV.

7. Community - Another new comedy, this has been pretty sharp and funny, but still feels a bit like it’s finding its voice. Is it going to be a 30 Rock style absurdist comedy, or a more reality based romantic and sentimental show? Either could work, but the show needs to downplay the Britta/Jeff stuff a bit and just let the cast breathe and do their thing. The most recent episode was probably the best yet, and deepened the cast nicely, so I’ve got a good feeling about the show going forward.

8. Modern Family - I checked out the first two episodes of this show yesterday thanks to its great critical buzz. So far, I’d agree that it’s a solid show, definitely a bit of an Arrested Development meets The Office vibe, but not at the level of either of those series. The potential is definitely there, but I feel like comedies need to cut out talking heads for a while, it’s getting played out. And, this show, like a lot of comedies on now, would benefit from a slightly longer 40 minute running time, to give more room for the stories to breathe, and more opportunities for all the characters. But, it’s good so far, and seems like a solid mix of goofiness and solid character stuff.

9. Dollhouse - Clinging on here, Dollhouse had a slight uptick with its third episode, but remains frustratingly boring. I see a lot of people defending the show as the most intellectual on TV, to which I’d say Mad Men is still on people, and has much more to say about adopting and abandoning identity than this show ever has. Ultimately, it’s a decent hour, but any hope of it being truly great fades more and more with each episode.

10. Glee - I really liked the pilot for the show, but could feel the hand of Ryan Murphy in its cynicism and cartoonish characters. I hate his attitude towards the world, as evidenced by Nip/Tuck, and it seemed in particular contrast to the hopefulness in some elements of the show. The show since then has fluctuated wildly in quality, burning through plots without deepening the characters. I still think it’s a great premise, and like the musical numbers, but it feels like the real story, the growth and training of the glee club, is barely mentioned, and all the focus is on the same character beats. I’m giving this one a few more episodes, but it could easily slip off the radar.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Story of the 2000s: Music

To wrap up the decade, I’m going to do the standard top ten lists, but I also want to go a bit more in depth into the trends and changes that have happened in all the major art forms over the past ten years. Perhaps more than any ten year period in recent history prior, the 2000s were a time of major shifts in the way we consume and experience virtually every major art form. I’m going to start things off with a discussion of music, both from a consumption point of view and an artistic one.

The biggest obvious shift in music in the past ten years has been the change from a CD sales based model to one based almost entirely around downloading, both legal and illegal. I still remember running Napster for the first time on my 56K connection and being amazed at my ability to access all kinds of different music. Getting DSL in 2001 changed things radically, and from there out, I downloaded a huge variety of different music, crossing Napster, Kazaa, Audiogalaxy, Bit Torrent and others.

I’m not proud of illegal downloading, but it’s something that was just sort of there, and I think most people now see music not as something to be paid for, but something that you have a right to have. Considering the cost of producing an album, I don’t agree it should be that way, but as artists like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have acknowledged, that’s the way it is and you can’t really fight it.

But, that’s all on the business side, what about the music itself? I think the biggest story of the 00s is the breakdown of the walls between genres and subcultures, and the embrace of a wider variety of songs and artists across the typical cultural rifts. To me, the 90s were the worst decade for music in the modern era, largely because the popular rock, grunge and alternative, was just so heavy and oppressive, with no sense of fun, while the pop music was generally soulless boy band stuff. Hip hop had some moments, and you can obviously point to great albums, but on the whole, the ‘sound’ of the decade was no good.

Luckily the 00s were a vast improvement, as the ‘death’ of rock in the late 90s/early 00s opened the door for an infusion of dance energy into rock music that led to a much more fun and poppy sound than had been heard in a long time. A band like Phoenix that sounded out of place at the beginning of the decade hit the zeitgeist perfectly this year, as every major rock band seems to incorporate dance and electronic elements that were present in virtually none of the successful bands of the 90s. Notably the only 90s juggernaut still going strong is Nine Inch Nails, who always had a pop sensibility shining through the heaviness.

This occurred in conjunction with the embrace of pop artists by the cultural establishment. Britney Spears’ “Toxic” is a key song in the decade’s narrative, it started out as a guilty pleasure favorite and eventually just became a critically respected favorite. Justin Timberlake is probably the best example of this, a guy who at this point has both artistic respect and popular acclaim, and backed it up with fantastic songs. The stigma of liking pop music generally disappeared, as indie rock bands started to sound more and more like the pop charts.

I’d argue a big piece of this is the increasing prominence of the producer within the pop world. Three people had more of an impact on music in the 00s than anyone else out there, and shaped the sound of the decade, those three people being Timbaland and Chad Hugo and Pharrell as The Neptunes. The auteur producer provided an easy way to justify liking pop songs by ‘lesser’ artists. When you listen to “Cry Me a River,” it’s not about Justin, it’s about Timbaland’s production.

But, eventually it becomes clear that the songs themselves are good, regardless of who’s behind them. And, I love the sound that these guys created. I love the fact that a song as strange and compelling as “My Love” can be a massive hit, and I think in the future, people will look back on Timbaland’s work with Justin in the same way that they view Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.

So, the fact that it was acceptable culturally to like pop music, either through the lens of irony or simply straight up, made it easier for alternative and indie bands to bring more dance and pop elements into their songs and still maintain artistic credibility.

That’s not to say it was all dance stuff. There was obviously a lot of different music made, but I think this was the primary narrative of the decade, the elevation of dance and pop sensibilities over traditional rock stuff, reflected in the increasing denigration of ‘rockist’ critics and their old canon.

Of course, it’s ironic to speak of a pop sensibility when the very definition of a crossover song was changing. With the decline of the radio as hit making force, what are the songs that everyone knows? There are some songs that crossed borders, but will any songs from the 00s connect us all in the way that something like “Don’t Stop Believing” does today? When I go out place, it often seems like the entire DJ set is a spin through 80s and 90s classics, barely touching on today. And, the death of Michael Jackson only reinforced that notion that no one will ever cross over the way he did.

But, some songs did make it, even if only in certain circles. Throw “D.A.N.C.E” on at a party and people will go nuts, same for “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” And, Kanye West made a continuous string of songs that crossed borders and united people. It’s not as easy to become ubiquitous, but it’s still possible.

So, ultimately the narrative of the 00s seemed to be the restoration of fun to music. What artist symbolizes the decade as a whole? For the 90s, it was Kurt Cobain, and his infinite troubles and inability to deal with fame. For the 00s, perhaps Daft Punk, a band that’s admired by everyone and avoids the pitfalls of fame by dressing up as robots and playing their concerts in a giant pyramid. Even as politics got worse, music grew more and more celebratory, so that even songs about stolen elections and crumbling societies could sound euphoric when filtered through the powerhouse voice of the Arcade Fire or the dance rhythms of !!!.