Wednesday, November 30, 2011

And we have a winner (and a foul!) on the sing-off

The Sing-Off season 3 left me with a feeling of disappointment.

As I previously stated, the advancement of the Dartmouth Aires over other groups never sat well with me. As far as I was concerned, the Dartmouth Aires were the weak link of a very strong final eight. It wasn't a matter of one bad decision along with seven very good decisions. It was a matter of the judges making the wrong choice in virtually every episode (Delilah did fall on their own sword, so I'll give the judges a pass that week) by simply not eliminating the Aires. I am aware that it's just my personal opinion that the Aires weren't that good and it's not some objective truth.

The elimination of Afro-Blue, however, went from my disagreeing with the judges over the quality of the groups, to just feeling cheated. For one, Ben admitted that Afro-Blue was his favorite group. Additionally, Sara Bareilles said she decided to vote with the group that she had a great emotional connection and ignored that the Afro-Blues moved her to tears twice. Lastly, Afro-Blue never sounded bad or technically defficient (and Dartmouth Aires continually got comments toward that effect). Their instructions from the judges to dumb down their sound and simultaneously still keep delivering their signature sound put the group in a hole they couldn't climb out of.

Ben Folds addressed the twitter haters about Afro-Blue's dismissal on his blog here:
http://www.nbc.com/sing-off/on-key-with-ben-folds/

It's with some shame that I admit that I was one of those haters. I tried to articulate this with some self-awareness that I was clearly getting too invested in a TV program, but at the same time I now realize that I was adding a lot of negativity to the blogosphere and twittersphere.

The Dartmouth Aires didn't end up derailing the season for me, because at the end of the day, the best group won. The Pentatonix were a cut above the other groups, but this season was sufficiently more dramatic in that they didn't emerge as a clear winner until a few weeks in.

Congrats to the Pentatonix, as well as the other groups with strong finishes. I even tip my hat to the Aires for persevering and improving

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The failure of Community

College is generally portrayed in popular culture as an experimental period following high school that serve as the best four years of your life. Portrayals of the college experience on TV tend to marginalize all the outliers to that experience such as:
-The commuters who simultaneously have a foot in the working world
-The people already in the working world who begrudgingly return to school because they have no other option
-Older students who don't get into the social aspects of college because they have little in common with the primary age bracket that comprises most of the campus
-The people who who view their current college as their safety school rather than shangri-la and subsequently view it as either a temporary stop or a necessary evil

"Community" is about marginalized types deciding to make the best of their second-rate lot by banding together to enjoy their college experience the way that they're entitled to enjoy it. It's an underdog story and the triumphant moments at the end of each episode revolve around the group uniting together. When Troy comes to Britta's rescue when she gets paralyzed up on stage at the dancing competition, or Britta and Jeff team up together to fend off some bullies, the group succeeds at being "the cool kids" on campus (or whatever it is their goal is in that episode) because their bonds to each other have been tested and strengthened.

From that point of view, the show initially had a good concept and framework that intrigued me and kept me going through the first season. While the show wasn't particularly funny and had some awkward kinks, it did have some genuinely gooey moments in the last couple minutes of the episode that would redeem the half-hour experience for me. At least that was the case in the first season.

Most of the people I know who love discussing TV, blog about TV, or write about it professionally, they have praised the show as one of the smartest and most enjoyable programs on television and that praise seems to have increased as the show goes on.

For me, it's been the opposite experience.

To me, the show's main crime is that it is so caught up at making the academic community salivate with its deft handling of filmic conventions that it forgets to be entertaining. In terms of the amount of conflict going on, the plots can be incredibly insubstantial. To their credit, Community is experimental so they take risks and sometimes miss. That's something I admire over a show like "Modern Family" (a best-case scenario) or "Two and a Half Men" but I think the show rarely ever has baseline episodes which follow the more familiar beats of a sitcom.

I also think for a comedy, the show's humor factor is very low. It's not a show that goes for one-liners often and relies more on character-based humor and I think your mileage may vary depending on how you find the characters, which to me is kind of a weak point.

For one, the characters on the show don't really get along as well as advertised. It seems everyone hates Pierce and the group routinely gets mad at Jeff. The show devotes much of its screentime to having characters arguing with each other, as if the writing room can't think of any way to build up to climaxes. I will concede that the show's magic is often how it comes to the other side on the denouement.

The ensemble as a whole feels vastly overrated to me. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) seems rather stereotypical and Annie (Allison Brie) can feel increasingly like a caricature. To her credit, Allison Brie infuses Annie with comic characteristics and even has a penchant for physical comedy but her heightened reactions don't really match the tone of the show. Joel McHale comes off somewhat awkwardly as the rebellious cool kid on campus, but I think that's the writing which asks us to believe that someone in his 30's could ever be the coolest kid on campus. Pierce suffers a little bit from being whatever the show needs him to be week-to-week. His varying levels of kindness are inconsistent.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How I've come to hate the Dartmouth Aires and other Sing-Off Thoughts

My apologies for not writing about the Sing-Off as I did last year in such winning fashion (also here: http://bit.ly/if3nxR. This season, I've been finding myself experiencing a feeling I normally don't have towards TV characters and that is borderline hatred.

Normally, I don't hate a TV character because it's pointless to hate a fictional character. In this case, my anger is directed towards real life people and that's also ironic, because they're a group of 16 guys who I've never met and I probably wouldn't mind so much if I did ever meet them.

When I initially saw this group of people on TV, I didn't have a problem with them at all. I didn't particularly like their song choice, but I didn't think they deserved to be axed. In the first week, they were in the same bracket as a group of Liberian refugees who were there for the sob story factor and sounded like the choir in the opening few measures of the Lion King's Circle of Life (I don't mean that as a compliment).

But the thing is that the caliber of talent on the show this season is amazing. If need be, I could make a good case for about seven of these groups to win the entire show because they are legitimately the best at what they do without those cases being mutually exclusive. In no particular order:
1. BYU Vocal Point (finished 5th)-Vocal Point deserves to win because they were arguably the best group at clearing the hurdles created by the wide range of genres. They also have the sharpest, most finely tuned arrangements out of any group and no one can touch them in terms of choreography. The reasoning from Shaun Stockman for their dismissal this past week was that they didn't have a star personality. I call BS on that. Aside from the edgy rock-tailored voices of McKay Crockett and Ross Welch, I thought Jake Hunsaker had the best voice on the show.

And keep in mind, I'm defending them to the death without being sure if I even like them as people**. It's not the Mormon thing, but they seem either whipped by their girlfriends and wives or strangely overeager to ensure us of their heterosexuality. In the worst incident of this, their introductory video* has one guy stating out of nowhere (I am not making this up) "Yeah, we really like girls, kissing girls also." Then he demonstrates his girl-kissing prowess by leaning down to a girl on the quad and kissing her (I hope that was his girlfriend and it's not a standing mandate at BYU that all girls must be on the ready in case Ben wants to kiss them).

2. North Shore (finished tied for 9th): Aside from being true masters at what they do from the standpoint of time spent on their craft, they are vitally important because they represent what is a lost art and despite the opinion of the judges who felt they looked dated on the "Power of Love," they succesfully take their old-school sensibility on pop songs. Not to mention, "Talk of the Town" coasted to the finals last year without putting an ounce of effort into modifying their style to accommodate different genres. "North Shore" was full of personality, humility, and appeared to be much more hard-working.

3. Delilah (finished 6th): A case can be made that Delilah is the best all-female a capella group ever assembled. Aside from the fact that this legitimate blogger thinks so, it makes sense considering you had judges scour the country for the best a capella groups in the country and this all-star super group is comprised of the best females from those groups. So if that's not good enough, than the judges might as well ban women from singing together and institute Sharia law. I mean, honestly, what more did these girls have to do? Yes, a couple of their performances had some problems, but if I'm arguing whether they had the potential to win the entire show and not shame the Sing-Off brand, then yes. You can also make a case for them to win based on the sheer number of home-run tear-inducing performances.

4. Afro-Blue (still in the final 4): In terms of musicianship, they are a step above the rest. Their music is indisputably solid, enjoyable and produced those "musical orgasms" (Nicole's term not mine) that Committed evoked out of Shawn last year. They have a deep bench, amazing vocalists (Christine Dashielle and Danielle Withers), and a priceless sound.

5. Urban Method (still in the final 4): Despite being pigeonholed as "the group with the rapper," Urban Method is strong enough as a group, that the judges deservedly have been hailing them all competition. They have a deep bench of great soloists, an excellent amount of cohesiveness for a group that just got together, and a very well-produced sound. They also are edgy and might be able to sell more records among non-a-capella fans better than anyone else.

6. Pentatonix (still in the final 4): They will likely win it all, so I shouldn't need too big of an argument here. They are highly innovative, fresh, and they produce an incredible amount of sound for just five people.

7. Sonos (finished tied for 11th with Kinfolk 9): Urban Method blogged that they listen to their record all the time and Scott Hoying of front-runner Pentatonix says "they're who we want to be." So if the point of this competition is making a record and building a following, what does it say about your group that one of the groups is already buying your CD and the winning group wants to emulate you? Hell, I even bought music from the Sonos on itunes*** and those are among my most played songs. The Sonos are otherworldly and are right up there with Pentatonix and Afro-Blue in terms of creativity when it comes to approaching songs. They only had five people but so do the Pentatonix and I'm sure they're talented enough to have worked out those harmony quirks if given the chance. The judges acted as if succeeding as a five-person a capella group was impossible.

The Dartmouth Aires, on the other hand, are entirely unremarkable to me (although I will concede their Queen performance was phenomenal). I've come to accept, however, that I'm in a small minority. My experience scouring the blogosphere and conversing with others on message boards indicates that people seem to very much like this group for legitimate reasons.

Now, I acknowledge that I have a more limited ability to analyze choral music and express that analysis than 90% of the people I discuss the show with, I could still argue that the Dartmouth Aires don't have what it takes to win it. To me, they're indistinguishable from the hundreds of 15-memberish all-male collegiate a capella groups from the country that rarely have any geographical reach beyond their campus and the schools where they tour. If I went to Boston University or Harvard or Brown, why would I consider buying a Dartmouth CD when I could get a similar sounding a capella CD from a group on my campus?

In order to make the case that they're champions, you'd have to make a convincing case that they're so much better than that humongous mass of a capella groups, that they could significantly sell records. Anyone have any idea how much Aires sell right now?

In the meantime, the Dartmouth Aires are eliminating groups who legitimately could win the competition. On top of that, the Dartmouth Aires are also eliminating groups who I happen to like better.

So while I didn't originally have anything personal against the Aires, it's gotten to become so. Case in point: One of the Aires has a very interesting wavy hair style (I believe his name is Clark). I used to think "hmmm, that's an interesting hair style." Now whenever I see Clark's hair, I think "that's a very stupid hairstyle." His hair style hasn't changed at all, but that's the inexplicable effect the Aires are having on me.

It's partially because I watch the show week after week and seeing this injustice committed over and over builds up that resentment. It's also partially because I feel like everyone I talk to about the show is ignoring the mediocrity of the Aires when they have debates over whether Delilah or Afro-Blue or Urban Method should have been eliminated in a certain week****. For me, everyone else in the top 7 or 8 are so amazing that if the Aires were out of the competition, it would be nothing but a win-win-win-win-win-win situation.

More importantly, it's because the show is doing a good job of building emotional attachment between me and the different groups. For example, the similarly-structured Yellow Jackets of the University of Rochester might also have some of the same weaknesses as the Aires*****. However, they had an eagerness and likability that won me over. So it would only be natural that if every group had an emotional connection to me that grew week after week, then eventually I'd feel strongly in the opposite direction towards the one group that I originally was apathetic to.

So, my apologies to the Dartmouth Aires and Clark's wavy haircut (which I still want to believe is a good haircut) for the inexplicable hatred I've come to feel. I'm not a hater of any of you and think you're perfectly pleasant people. It's just that reality TV has made me that way.


*As I wrote about the Whiffenpoofs a year ago, sometimes those intro videos can rub me the wrong way. I had a similar problem with the Del Tones of the University of Delaware. They were self-admittedly the fourth best a capella group at the University of Delaware and felt that they should be among the top 16 groups in the nation? Also, members suffering from home sickness when they first get to college and being concerned about making friends (yeah, that's pretty much everybody in the first two weeks of college) is really not much of an emotional hook

If you enjoyed this write-up, check out my internet column.


**But in all seriousness, I've grown to like BYU vocal point over the weeks. Too bad, you had to go

***Want to enable me to buy more itunes music or itunes epsiodes so I can continue to blog about the groups of the Sing-Off so entertainingly? Be sure to donate on the top right of the page. If you are a member of a group on the Sing-Off and write your name in the column, I will immediately start blogging about your group in a very positive fashion

****Note to judges and Sing-Off producers: Other than going back in time and eliminating the Aires during the top40/1960's week, you could improve the Sing-Off substantially by cutting the series short a couple weeks and having the audience vote on a final five.

*****Although unlike Ben, I could close my eyes and tell Aaron Sperber, Jamal Moore, and Danny Rubenstein apart. One of their strengths is having diverse and unique soloists

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

South Park's Butter episodes

My latest article at Examiner.com

It wasn't until several years after the show had become a cult hit and I heard my fair share of my teenage peers doing Cartman imitations that I first watched an episode of "South Park."

As for whether I am a fan, sort of. Sometimes the show's gross-out humor and juvenille tendencies can be a little too high for my tolerance, but their current events parodies can sometimes be impressively sharp.

I did recently started to notice that every single episode starring Butters is a home run to me. I have no idea what the general consensus is over which episodes are great and which aren't great, but to me Butters episodes seem to be drawn from an almost entirely different and better show. Butters episodes are great comedies of errors. The kid is too sweet and innocent to understand the world around him and his parents look absolutely awful in retrospect. I even think it's a good satire on alpha-level parents in general and it fits into the whole theme of the show really well. That theme is that fourth graders are the sanest people in society and as you grow into adulthood, you don't get smarter but rather just screw everything up through overcomplication.

A show that was centered around Butters would wear thin pretty quickly, but as it is, South Park knows how to use the character to good effect.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Allen Gregory and dislikable characters

Allen Gregory-The show features Jonah Hill as a 7-year old boy genius who, despite having lobbied for fuel cell technology on Capitol Hill and having a circle of friends that includes Sandy Bullock, quickly becomes an ordinary outcast when he transfers to a new school.

I tend to give a fairly generous bye to anything appearing on TV that either looks remotely entertaining even if it might have some rough spots. Even if a show isn't entertaining me in the moment, I might be intrigued because it has a solid enough framework. In this case, you can envision a network of characters or scenarios in the case that if the writing got sharper it wouldn't be very hard for the show to hit its stride. Anyone who has watched the woeful first season of either "Parks and Recreation" and "American Dad" would know what I'm talking about.

"Allen Gregory" is a very rare case of the opposite. Despite having the ability to knock jokes out of the park here and there, the show is held back immensely by its framework. These are  ultimately unlikable characters that we don't want to spend time with.

It's true that some shows succeed immensely behind unlikeable characters with few redeeming qualities, but that's because they're interesting or inhabit an interesting enough world.


Allen Gregory had promise to be interesting because of its tension. It would be like if Stewie on "Family Guy" were ever confronted with the reality that maybe he wasn't one of the world's smartest and most charismatic people and forced to deal with that reality alongside other kids who could see right through him everyday. "Gregory" doesn't capitalize on that because the main character rarely acknowledges reality and there isn't a strong presence of the characters on the show who stand to prove him otherwise.

For example, his teacher Gina Wintrhop (a faaaar more ideal love interest than the 60-year old Principal Gottlieb who induces more of a gross-out effect than anything else) is an excellent character and would be a great foil because she only cares about Allen Gregory to the extent that he interferes with her attempts to run a classroom. Unfortunately, the interaction between the two is very limited.

The end result? The main conflicts (and potential for comedic tension) aren't dealt with in any interesting or meaty way. A typical scenario on this show is Allen being given a swirlie, passing it off as something that he voluntarily chose to do and being enabled in his behavior by his dad and a school superintendant who appreciates the money from the Gregory-DeLongpree name too much. Not much fun.

Another major problem is that not only is Allen Gregory delusional and emotionally abusive to those around him, but so is his biological dad (voiced by French Stuart). The father character is so morally backwards that his back story (yet to be fully explained) is that he coerced a straight man with a wife and kids to be his husband (sex included).

The end result of this is that the scenes with the family of four have a sort of weird dynamic where two people are the family scapegoat and the dialogue just doesn't flow as well. It's not convincing that two people would be able to have so much power that they can intimidate the other two into into just being quiet scapegoats.

It works much better if you have three or more people and one guy who's the punching back. Most shows employ this method (see Meg on "Family Guy", Jerry on "Parks and Recreation", Kimmy Gibbler on "Full House", Roy Biggins on "Wings").

Will Allen Gregory be able to right its wrongs with a few character tweaks? It might not have enough time to do so. Besides, if it gets cancelled, it would be a deserving move. Still, while it's on the air, there's always a chance.