Friday, May 27, 2011

Lost: One Year Later

*WARNING: There are spoilers about Lost in this post. Though at this point it really shouldn't matter anymore, if you're really trying to avoid knowing what happened, you've been warned.*

One year ago this week, "The End," the final episode of Lost, aired. I sat at home, watching it on my couch (a rarity, given how little actually TV I watch as a college student), absorbing every second of this episode knowing that it would be the last. And yes, in case you were wondering, I bawled like a baby during those final moments. And with the one-year anniversary, I wanted to write a post that allowed me to look back at the show and write about what it meant to me and where I stand one year later (sure, I could have made this a "where are they now?" deal, but Entertainment Weekly's already done that).

There were a number of reasons why the finale brought forth those tears. Within the realm of the show, I was touched by the warm sentimentality of the characters meeting in a purgatory of their own creation, biding their time until everyone arrived to move on into the afterlife. I loved that couples such as Jin and Sun were reunited, and that characters long gone returned (Boone!). And I loved how the episode focused on the show's greatest strength: the interactions, relationships, and personal journeys of the characters. This is something I maintain many either did not realize or did not understand about the show: it was indeed a sci-fi mystery show, and there were plenty of questions asked in regards to what the island was and what it all meant, but this was all secondary to the individual characters' journeys. Sure, the hatch was interesting and deserved explanation, but would it have mattered if not for Locke's spiritual attachment to the island? When Lost ended, there were a lot of questions left unanswered, but I'm still convinced that few of those questions involved the characters. Do we really need to know why the notebooks from the Question-Mark Station ended up in the middle of the jungle? Of course not. The fact of the matter is, it was color added to the plot to keep you guessing. In life, we don't learn the answers to everything. And Lost was smart enough to know that, letting us know only what any given character knew and nothing more. This decision added to the impact of those final, character-based moments; it helped forage an audience connection to the characters, allowing fans such as myself to become closer to them.

The end of Lost came at an interesting time for me, personally. I was going to be moving two times in as many weeks: once from a house outside of town to one in town with my family, and again to an apartment in Carrboro with my then-girlfriend. In many ways, then, it was the end of one period of my life and the beginning of a new one. I was living on my own for the first time in my life, and the prospect was plenty terrifying. I was venturing forth into new territory, with no tethers of experience to assist me (well, maybe that's not completely true, but living in a dorm room is not the same as living in an apartment).

I was foraging on without fandom as well. I unabashedly loved Lost; I could never pick one movie as my favorite, but I could easily call Lost my favorite TV show without adding any modifiers to it such as "comedy" or "drama" or "contemporary." I was, in every sense of the word, a fan. I never could have written about Lost the same way I write about Glee in weekly recaps. I know that the show was not perfect, and in the back of my mind I knew that at the time, but I made (and still make) excuses and theories for any plot holes or character anomalies. I defended the quality of that show with all my heart, and refused to let anyone convince me that there was anything better on TV. That's not to say I didn't hear their arguments and checked these shows out; I actually enjoyed quite a bit of them (Mad Men stands as a good example), but I never agreed that these shows were better than Lost. Every year at the Emmys, I would hope that Lost would clean up, taking prizes wherever it could (it did win the Best Drama Series Emmy for its first season, but of course I think it should have six of those; if nothing else, it should have won last year for its final season). And when Lost left the airwaves, I no longer had a show that I felt so passionately about to watch the next season.

However, don't think that I wasn't without Lost: I received the complete series box-set of DVDs for Christmas, so that I could go back and revisit the show whenever I wanted. And I geeked-out big time over the set: the box it came in was packed with mysteries, and you could use a blacklight to uncover a secret compartment with a small scroll inside a replica on the Ankh. That's not even to mention the various secret features on the bonus DVD, such as the footnote "The New Guy in Charge," suggesting what Hurley's administration as protector of the Island was like. Needless to say it was nerdgasm at its finest.

Immediately, just like the networks, I set out looking for the next Lost, a show that I could develop a strong relationship with. Out of the shows I was already watching, there were slim pickings. I've already written about House on here; Glee was too up-and-down in terms of quality, 30 Rock and Modern Family were funny but didn't provide avenues for falling completely in love with the characters, V quickly devolved for a bad thriller with good intentions to a parody of itself, and Flashforward had already sealed its fate as a one-and-done show. So with nothing already in the stable, I turned to the shows that would soon be premiering. Consciously or not, I ended up going for the shows that most resembled Lost: sci-fi/thrillers that had large casts, hoping that one of these would recapture that magic. Alas, neither one did; No Ordinary Family was hokey and bland, while The Event had horrendous pacing problems, terrible characters, and no clear idea of where it was going. Of the other new shows I started watching (Louie, Running Wilde, Lone Star, The Chicago Code, Undercovers, The Walking Dead, Archer), none of them had me fanatic either. This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy those shows - Louie, Archer and The Chicago Code were easily my favorites - but they never allowed me to get involved the way Lost did. Though I should say that in the case of The Chicago Code, had the show gotten a second season it could have become that show for me.

This is something I've thought about for a long time. Would I ever find another Lost? Is it possible for me to become so deeply involved in a show, to form relationships with the characters to where I legitimately feel like I know them as people, that I can call myself a fan of that show? One year later, I still haven't found fandom on TV again. But I'm still taking steps toward finding it: this summer I'm going to try catching up on shows I haven't been watching but want to such as Breaking Bad, True Blood, and Fringe. Maybe my next TV fandom is hiding in one of these shows, just waiting to be awakened. Maybe not.

There is one show that comes close, though. There is a show with dynamite writing, marvelous direction,and a colorful cast of characters. Though the actor portraying the main character gets most of the accolades, the entire cast is magnificent, making each and every character interesting and layered and even dangerous. It's a show that hypnotizes me, a show that I genuinely look forward to seeing every week and find myself thinking about from time to time. And unlike most shows, those thoughts aren't about whether I should continue watching the show or about the quality of it, but rather about the action and characters within the show and what would happen next. I'm not quite as passionate about this show as I was Lost, but after the stellar second season it just had, I've got high hopes for the third and believe I might just be able to call myself a fan (hell, I may even decide so just going back and watching the first two seasons again). What show is this?

Yes, it is Justified. I'd kill for the opportunity to meet or be Raylan Givens. If only I looked good in a Stetson...

There's my story, one year after Lost. I still miss the show dearly, but at the same time I'm glad it came to an end before it lost its way. It chose the perfect time to close its narrative, and as I said before, I can go back and revisit this world and these characters whenever I want. But the thought that these episodes are the only ones I'll ever have is still sad, and I hope that one day I'll be able to extend my fandom into another show the same way. It won't completely be the same, but it will be something. One year later, the search for that show continues.

So let me ask you this: were you a fan of Lost? If not, what show or shows are you a fan of, if any? I'd love to hear other stories of fandom. Please share!

And in case you wanted to do a little reading, here's the other posts that I have written about Lost in the past.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Glee: "New York"

From the very beginning of the season, when the New Directions performed "Empire State of Mind" in the beginning of the first episode, we knew we would be going to New York in the end. And sure enough, here we are, in the middle of Times Square as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" plays overhead, massive advertisements of Broadway successes staring down upon Rachel Berry like the sirens on the rocks, calling her to them in their glitzy glory. Historically, taking a show on the road to a new location is a risky endeavor, yet Glee handles it quite well, treating it as just a new location for the same old nonsense: a bunch of dilly-dallying and inconsequential interactions, with a few excuses for a performance thrown in.

The New Directions are in New York for Nationals, but apparently haven't had any time to prepare anything for their performance until they arrived. So while trying to write two original songs for the competition, they also want to go out and enjoy New York while they're here. More importantly, Finn, now free of his relationship with Quinn, wants to win Rachel back, but she doesn't want his country-boy status to stop her from escaping Lima and following her own New York dreams. Meanwhile, Coach Taylor Will goes and checks out the college level Broadway before taking the job, and when the Panthers New Directions find out he's leaving, he quickly decides to stay instead. Finally, the New Directions perform, but unfortunately don't make the top 10, crushing their dreams of winning Nationals.

Let's talk about that ending first. I'm actually glad that New Directions didn't win. A part of that comes from real-world experience: come on, there's no way you're going to win when you're WRITING YOUR SONGS A MERE DAY BEFORE THE COMPETITION. Of course, real-world logic is not in the vocabulary of this show (which isn't a bad thing), so that's not the biggest thing for me. I've written over and over about the darkness on the edge of this show, and the underlying theme that no matter how big they dream, it's unlikely any of these characters are going to break out of small-town Ohio and be famous. Finn seems to have accepted this, and Rachel even makes it explicit that she knows he won't make it out of Lima. Seeing these kids make it this far, only to come short of their dreams (again), is a refreshing and interesting course for the show to take, and it's a decision that remains true to the heart of the show. To use a sports metaphor, not everyone can be the Yankees; somebody has to be the Cubs.

It's easy to be cynical about this episode, because the show, just like the kids, is completely in love with the New York romanticism. The city is lovingly shot, portrayed as the place where, to quote Alicia Keys "dreams are made of" and "these lights will inspire you." Caught up in this romancing are Finn and Rachel, a relationship that I kind of hoped wouldn't return but actually enjoyed here. Their date was very old-fashioned, and it played like a goofy-sweet Bogart-Bergman romance. And though they were obviously a contrivance, the guys singing "Bella notte" while Finn and Rachel almost-kissed was actually a really nice touch, nailing that misty-eyed tone that the show was obviously going for. If nothing else, the episode made New York look like the most romantic place on Earth, a place where love comes easily and often and shines with a warm, inviting glow.

As far as performances go, there were plenty. "I Love New York/New York, New York" was a fun mashup that showcased the city and gave the kids an excuse to go prancing around recognizable locations. Matthew Morrison got a chance to pimp his upcoming CD, singing the first single "Still Got Tonight" as Will finally got his chance to sing on a (empty) Broadway stage. Kurt and Rachel were given the opportunity to perform on Broadway as well, singing "For Good" on the very stage that Wicked plays eight times a week, the Gershwin Theater. It was gorgeous, of course, and it brought back a lot of memories of both seeing Wicked in New York (all the way back in 2008) and of my high school chorus performing the song (still brings a tear to my eye). In the actual competition, the group that performed "Yeah!" was utterly pointless and not even very good, while Charice got to pimp her upcoming CD by performing "As Long As You're There" (an original). As for the New Directions' new songs, "Pretending" was sweet if a bit boring, and "Light Up the World" tried to hard to be "Loser Like Me" to be truly great.

Overall, though, "New York" was a commendable end to a very up-and-down season of Glee. Of course, this means that the slate will be wiped clean for next season, in which pretty much the entire cast is going to graduate (though surely they can't all be seniors, right?). Here's a new chance, Glee: learn from this season's mistakes, and realize your potential as a show.

- I didn't even mention "My Cup," another classic Brittany song that is perversely sexual in its innocence.

- Earlier last week, the show hired Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a New York playwright best known for polishing the script for Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark - Version 2.0, to be the fourth writer. We'll see whether his voice makes any impact on the show's dynamic.

- I kind of hate that the whole "Will's going to Broadway" thing was resolved so quickly - it easily could have gone on into next season and still have worked, I think.

- How many instruments does Puck know how to play? You can now add accordion to that list, and hopefully next year we'll discover that he plays a mean harpsichord as well.

- Quinn, and really everyone who wasn't Finn, Rachel or Kurt, didn't have much to do in this episode, but man was her one scene really bad. On the other hand, her new haircut? Hot.

- They finally gave Cheyenne Jackson a moment to actually act, but it was still a waste of a terrific actor. Charice, however, was as stiff and wooden as ever.

- Patti Lupone made a quick cameo. I imagine she actually was dining in the restaurant while they were filming, and just agreed to do the spot thinking, "I'm Patti Lupone. I do whatever the hell I want."

- So what do we think of Sam and Mercedes getting together? I think it's pretty random, as are many of the relationships on this show, but it could turn out to be quite interesting if the writers remember it (Aguirre-Sacasa: here's your chance!).

- That's a wrap for season two. I want to hear your feedback: did you like these recaps? Should I write about season three as well, or should this be the end of this feature? Let me know in the comments, I want to know what you think.

Radio Daze Vol. 6: May/June 2011

A bi-monthly feature that reviews the current top 10 songs in America to catch a glimpse at the status of pop music today. This entry is taken from the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated May 28, 2011.

1. "Rolling in the Deep," Adele

As you'll see in the rest of this post, I didn't wait for the usual amount of turnover for this post, as there are four returning songs from the previous edition. Now, that's more of a statement of the durability of those songs (it's been almost two months since Vol. 5), and a part of me is hoping that by doing this now, Vol. 7 will be almost completely new. But more importantly, I wanted to catch this particular moment in pop because there's something very special and unusual about these ten songs and their placement on the charts, and it captures the current state of pop and the trends that are simultaneously being defined, solidified, and undercut.

The lattermost of those can clearly be seen here at #1. Back in 2008, Adele, a 19-year-old songstress from London, released a modest-selling album, 19, and snagged two Grammys for it, including Best New Artist (in a category that included the Jonas Brothers and Lady Antebellum). If you had asked anyone then if she would become the next pop sensation, you'd hardly find someone who would agree. But now, in 2011, something absolutely bizarre has occurred. Adele's sophomore album, 21, has been the best selling album in America each week for most of the year, and is the first album of the year to sell a million copies. And the lead single from that album, "Rolling in the Deep," is the number one song in the country. And most astonishingly, she did this without changing her sound a bit; there's nary an AutoTune or a dance beat in sight in her music. How did something so retro and organic go straight to the top in a world of dance-pop and processed vocals?

"Rolling in the Deep" is a song that is immediately timeless, a true-blue instant classic if there ever was one. The song plays over a rollicking gospel beat, as Adele's husky vocals carry the torment and blues of a love that could have been if it hadn't gone so sour. The backing chorus cements that bloozy gospel feel, adding force to the biting lyrics. It's the kind of song that could have been a hit five years ago or 35 years ago, and indeed it gives Adele the status of being this generation's Dusty Springfield. She may have never been to Memphis, but she's got the state of mind and the sound to seem like a lost artist from that scene, only now being discovered. And compared to the rest of the pop field, it's an exciting breath of fresh air. Here's hoping the second half of the year treats her just as well. A-

2. "E.T.," Katy Perry featuring Kanye West

The first holdover from Vol. 5 is actually in the same place as it was then, though it did hit the top for a while in between. It's still a silly song, but it's still fun enough to enjoy. I have a feeling this could be a potential "song of the summer," so I'll probably be reviewing again in the future. We'll see if it holds up come late summer. B+

3. "The Edge of Glory," Lady Gaga

I actually already wrote a bit about this song in my defense of Lady Gaga's latest output (I'm getting her new album tomorrow - so pumped!), but I want to go into it a little more. This is unabashed power pop, no doubt about it. And I maintain that behind the dance production, there's still an obvious Springsteen-ness about this song. It's in the lyrics, running with the one you love to a destination of dreams coming true, harking back to the best of Springsteen. There's also a bit of Bon Jovi in there as well, especially in that massive hook that thunders over the song in a burst of pop escapism that recalls the feeling of the hook for "Living on a Prayer." And that's ultimately what this song is all about: a big burst of emotion and the feeling that you're unstoppable now. Huge bonus points for that terrific Clarence Clemmons saxophone solo. As I previously stated, by looking backward, Gaga's never been better. And this song, which actually debuted in this spot, is far and away one of her best. Is it better than "Born This Way?" Please, don't make me choose! A+

4. "Give Me Everything," Pitbull featuring Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer

There's still something so strange to me about Pitbull's popularity. The Cuban-American rapper has become an unlikely pop by fully embracing the dance-pop trend, leaving his peers behind and capturing a wide audience to the result of several huge pop hits. With "Give Me Everything," he teams up with R&B gentleman Ne-Yo and newcomers Afrojack and Nayer for a jam that immediately recalls the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling." Pitbull still has yet to impress with his actual lyrics, relying mostly on undercooked references to Lindsay Lohan and boasting about, well, how awesome he is. But he gets by on his pure joie de vivre, making the prospect of going home with him seem like the best choice imaginable. Like "I Gotta Feeling," there's something strangely uplifting and cathartic about the song, but it never quite reaches the pop bliss of the former. B

5. "Just Can't Get Enough," The Black Eyed Peas

Hey, speaking of the Black Eyed Peas, look who it is! Look, this song is still terrible, and I haven't changed my opinion of it since late March. I do want to take this time to say that I don't think the Black Eyed Peas represent the death of pop music and are abominations to the very idea of music, as I've seen a lot of lately. The Peas do tend to be hit or miss with me, and I think the problem is that you have to adjust your expectations and your mindset when listening to them. There is no depth to a Black Eyed Peas song; there never has been, and there never will be, no matter how hard they may try. And honestly, when they do try, the results are disastrous (see: "One Tribe," "Now Generation"). What the Peas excel at is dumb pop music, something you can dance to without having to think about it. These guys aren't great, or even good, rappers, and Fergie is more often than not only a passable singer, but think about songs like "I Gotta Feeling" (their best track) or "Hey Mama" or, if you dare, "My Humps." No one's going to regard these as classics anytime soon, but there's no denying the delirious giddiness they put into these tracks. It's not smart, but it definitely works. And when they're on their dumb A-game, there usually aren't better examples of pure, unadulterated pop. "Just Can't Get Enough," though, just isn't one of those songs. C-

6. "On the Floor," Jennifer Lopez featuring Pitbull

Jennifer Lopez is the perfect example of the factory-produced pop star. She's not an especially talented singer, her dancing is good but not phenomenal, her acting career went nowhere as a result of her mediocre performances; apart from natural beauty, she doesn't really have anything going for her. So when her early-2000s heyday came to a close, she seemed destined to vanish from the pop scene completely, a supernova that had imploded. But here she is, back on the top of the charts, thanks in part to her high-profile gig as a judge on American Idol. She actually owes much of her career rejuvenation to Idol, though it didn't make her a pop star again, just a celebrity. "On the Floor" doesn't feature anything special from J. Lo; in fact, for the most part she seems conspicuously absent from song, her vocals disappearing into the background. Pitbull contributes a tossed-off verse that doesn't really add or subtract from the song as a whole. No, this song belongs completely to producer RedOne, formerly best known for Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." The song serves as an opportunity to showcase his terrific production skills, as he shifts between various beats at a breakneck pace while creating a true party song. Consider this his audition tape to be the next big producer in pop. B

7. "The Lazy Song," Bruno Mars

Oh, Bruno Mars. After the marathon run of "Grenade" in this column, he's become a mainstay at the top of the pop charts, and he continues that success with "The Lazy Song," a simple, silly song that is perfect for summer. Mars knows his way around a hit song, and he's proven to be more than adept at crafting hits that are pure pop bliss. "The Lazy Song" is no exception, featuring a simple guitar line and Mars' gleeful ruminations on all the things he could and will do on a lazy day, simply because "today I don't feel like doing anything." There's nothing deep going on here, but that's not in any way a problem because, really, why should it be? It's fun, and Mars is effortlessly charming in his vocal delivery that you can't help but want to just hang out with the guy and do nothing all day. Bonus points for that terrific video. A-

8. "Till the World Ends," Britney Spears

There's really no reason why I should like this song. For one, as I've said before, Britney Spears is not a good singer, even by pop standards, with a voice that's so over-processed that its impossible to tell if there's even a human being behind it. Then, the song sounds like it would be a better fit for Ke$ha (she did write the song, after all). Yet there's no denying that, for the first time in my life, I actually like a Britney Spears song. There's an undeniable buzz running through the production, and you can't help but wanting to dance to it whenever it comes on. Sure, there's no improvement to Britney's vocals, and she's not really doing anything here that she hasn't done on every one of her other songs. But the combination of the ridiculous lyrics and infectious production make this one a keeper, a guilty pleasure that's more of the latter than the former. B

9. "Look at Me Now," Chris Brown featuring Busta Rhymes and Lil' Wayne

Another holdover from the last volume, I have to make a slight change in my opinion. In the last entry, I wrote about how I more or less despise Chris Brown, and that his contributions to this song are minimal and are greatly overshadowed by his guests'. The latter part still holds true, especially when you consider the remarkably complex, sophisticated wordplay and flow that Lil' Wayne implements in his verse (every time I hear it, I get a little more excited about Tha Carter IV). And I still think that Brown is a despicable human being, but as an artist, he does have a good ear for what makes a hit song, and he's pretty talented when it comes to singing (not rapping). I wouldn't say he's one of the best, but he's not too shabby, either. B+

10. "Down on Me," Jeremih featuring 50 Cent

A part of me is still surprised this is as popular as it is, since it comes from an R&B singer who's only had one other song of any importance ("Birthday Sex," a "hit" in the stretchiest of terms) and a rapper who is now basically a parody of his former self. It does, however, belong to the dying subgenre of strip-club music, which makes it even more baffling. Maybe America just can't stand the thought of not being able to bump and grind to seductive music that ought to come with a pole, after having the economy tank? It's still catchy in spite of itself, though, and I still kind of hate myself for liking it. B

Lady Gaga's Born This Way

I know as of late it seems like all I do here is pimp Lady Gaga, rather than talk about movies as this blog was originally intended to be about. But I didn't name it The Entertainment Junkie for nothing, and the fact of the matter is that lately I've finally full-heartedly joined the ranks of the Little Monsters. Why? Well, I've written about a few tracks before, but now having heard her second full-length album, Gaga has finally, truly arrived as a singular pop star who has plenty of imitators, but no true contemporaries.

I've discussed before the different influences Gaga brings into her music, and how it's not all just Madonna-lite. In the months preceding the release of Born This Way, she stated in interviews that the album would have a strong rock influence. The obvious assumption here is that there would be less thumping 808s and more guitar-shredding, but that's not the case: Gaga's still in dance-pop mode, only it's much different from the sounds of The Fame or The Fame Monster. But the rock influence can clearly be heard in the music. Rock, at it's core, is all about big emotions: it's how the Beatles, U2, and Guns 'n' Roses became some of the biggest acts in the history of music. Soaring sing-along choruses, massive cathartic guitar riffs, lyrics that are simple yet immediately relatable; these define just about every subgenre of rock, at least in some sense. Gaga's taken this fundamental understanding of rock and applied it to this batch of songs, resulting in a record that's incredibly sincere for modern pop. Songs like "Marry the Night," "Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)," and "The Edge of Glory" are unabashedly bursting with big emotion, and the result is pop nirvana. Sure, her lyrics may not be sharp or complex, but she more than makes up for it with sheer emotion. More rewarding, it's a complete 180 from the "Poker Face" alienation of her first two albums, inviting us into her life without actually providing any personal details or confessionals.

A problem I had with Gaga's first one-and-a-half albums is that her musical personality and her public personality were two separate entities. While Lady Gaga, human being, would dress provocatively in gloriously absurd fashion statements and spit out bon mots about how her creativity comes from her vagina, Lady Gaga, musician, created relatively safe pop songs that didn't really subvert or take many risks. She was doing things that no one else was as a star, but musically it was standard, if somewhat-above-average, pop. Born This Way brings these two separate personalities together, as her music is now as completely weird and wild as she is. There are operatic bits, the bouncy Latin exhuberence of "Americano," the German prologue to  "ScheiBe" (German-speaking readers: translation?), and the truly bizarre "Government Hooker," which name-checks John F. Kennedy, as well as two songs on which the E Street Band's Clarence Clemmons lends his wailing sax ("The Edge of Glory" and "Hair"). You genuinely will not find a huge pop star with an album this crazy, and that craziness only makes the music better.

In addition to the genre influence, there are several artists that immediately come to mind as well. "Hair" sounds incredibly theatrical, and would probably fit well within the Queen catalog. "Fashion of His Love," on the other hand, is vintage Michael Jackson, the kind of song that the King of Pop easily would have recorded during his Thriller years. And one of the album's standout tracks, "You and I," sounds like barroom-Elton John, with a slow country saunter that works surprisingly well (it's really the album's closest thing to a ballad). 

Ultimately, Lady Gaga occupies an interesting place in pop. She makes dance music, but there's a darkness to it that makes it difficult to dance to. She's not interested in getting your ass on the floor, nor is she interested in sweet romanticism for a lover's mixtape. Instead, she's making music about the underbelly of love and being yourself, and Born This Way is the summation of these two ideas in a loud, sincere, and delightfully weird pop masterpiece. She's legitimately one-of-a-kind now.