Tuesday, September 26, 2006

It's Just More of the Same (yawn) in 'Studio 60'

Aaron Sorkin must really, really hate Christianity. It seems to be an obsession, or maybe just an easy cure for writer’s block.
It’s no secret on which side of the political aisle Sorkin resides. This is the guy who wrote “The American President” and created “The West Wing,” both highlighting Democratic administrations—and both quality entertainment.
But in the very first episode of the latter, way back in 1999, the plot revolved around Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) trying to get himself out of a jam for insulting the “religious right.” He spent the entire episode thinking it would be his last day in The White House before good ol’ Jed Bartlet came hobbling in on a cane to save the day and send those right-wing fanatics out on their self-righteous ears (Jed didn’t use that word, of course).
Well, it’s a new millennium, a new show, and, unfortunately, the same old Aaron.
In the second episode of his over-hyped new series, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” those Christian “nut jobs” (I can’t remember if that’s the actual derogatory name applied in the show, but it was something along those lines) are back at it again, this time protesting a sketch dubbed “Crazy Christians” set to air on Sorkin’s fictional version of “Saturday Night Live.” Whitford is even back in on the action, this time playing the show’s executive producer who looks, talks, and thinks EXACTLY like Josh Lyman (big stretch, huh, Bradley? Of course, I guess it’s better than reprising your villainous role for “Billy Madison II”). Whitford’s “new” character oh-so-gallantly refuses to cave to the radical right—again.
It’s not hard to see where the impetus for these albeit stereotypical characterizations of Christians comes from—most of the time I think Jerry Falwell does more harm than good on the public stage. But how about a little originality? If Sorkin had half the guts he thinks he does, he’d have made the protesters Muslims and dubbed the skit “The Joys of Jihad.” Instead, he took the easy way out, because Christians have been mocked and exaggerated and generalized and marginalized for so long, his petty little quips in “Studio 60” don’t even register on the controversy Richter scale anymore.
The anti-Christian content didn’t irritate me that much, really, because it’s not a surprise. No, it bothered me on an artistic level. “Studio 60,” by and large, sucks (if such a judgment can be reached after one episode, and I think it can). It’s basically “The West Wing” set in a Hollywood studio instead of The White House. I know Sorkin has various “trademark” elements to his series—the fast walking and talking, the witty banter, etc.—but “Studio 60” is a lackluster retread, right down to using the same font on its opening credits as those found on “The West Wing.”
At least in that show I could stand the self-importance and the melodrama because it typically revolved around such matters as nuclear warheads or State of the Union addresses. Sorkin’s talents don’t carry the same weight when applied to drafting next week’s lame opening skit. I realize the people behind “SNL” are under a lot of pressure, but that doesn’t mean I really care. It’s still a sketch comedy show, and “Studio 60” treats the job like it’s curing cancer.
In fact, for all of “The West Wing” aped in his new series, Sorkin seems to have left out the most fascinating part: the process. I would be interested in a show that deals exclusively with what a writers’ war room is like on deadline of a major TV show—something Sorkin knows all too well with his frequent missed deadlines. In this week’s episode, we got precious little of that and way too much who-slept-with-who soap opera crapola.
Sorkin is one of the best at what he does, that’s for sure (click on the May 2004 folder at right for my glowing column on his work for “West Wing”). Despite all these flaws, I still laughed out loud several times during the hour. Whitford and Matthew Perry (who plays the show’s lead writer) are fantastic together.
But in just that one hour (which is more like 42 minutes factoring in commercials), Sorkin took at least a half-dozen shots at Christians and conservatives in general—oh, how, like befuddled and defrocked Dan Rather, Sorkin longs for the days when “real” journalists like those at The New York Times were the only voices in media, while the Drudge Report is slammed with off-handed smarmy comments (ironically, Drudge was just named the Walter Cronkite of his era—in a new book by a Washington Post political writer, no less).
I’ve said it before and here it is again: Enough of the politics, already. It’s been done to death. You’re a liberal and you hate conservatives and Christians and George W. Bush (and don’t think those three are necessarily one and the same). We all get it. Here we are now, entertain us (and yes, I know that line is completely out of context here, but I thought it somewhat appropriate since we just passed the album’s 15th anniversary—we’re all getting old).
Thank goodness “Heroes” looks like it could be awesome.

Friday, September 15, 2006

More Capsule Music Reviews

It seems music is either feast or famine for me these days. I feel a little uncomfortable giving out so many A’s this summer, but it really has been a fantastic season. Case in point: Here are three more albums in the “A” range, and two I probably won’t listen to anymore.

• “B’Day,” Beyoncé—Wow, happy b’day to us, because Beyonce’s second solo album is what I was hoping for three years ago on “Dangerously in Love.” That album featured the perfect opening trifecta of “Crazy in Love”/“Naughty Girl”/“Baby Boy” but drifted the rest of the way through too many listless Mariah-esque slow jams. “B’Day,” on the other hand, mashes the pedal down nearly all the way through its breezy 10 songs (plus two hidden tracks). Leaving Destiny’s Child way back in her rearview mirror, Ms. Knowles unleashes her inner Aretha throughout this set, peeling paint off the walls at the top of her lungs in shredders like “Ring the Alarm,” “Get Me Bodied,” and lead single “Déjà Vu,” the latter teaming her once again with beau Jay-Z. Speaking of, I was worried for him the first time through “B’Day,” because Beyoncé seems on a rampaging mission to decimate every lowdown man in her life (especially on “Irreplaceable”: “I could have another you in a minute/Matter of fact, he’ll be here in a minute”). And then I listened through past the end of “Resentment,” the final track on the album; in the beginning of the “hidden” section, B’ explains this album was spawned in the afterglow of her work in “Dreamgirls,” the Oscar-baiting movie in which she stars (it opens Christmas Day). She loved that character, Deena, so much she didn’t want to let her go and thus wrote a batch of songs from her perspective—saying all the things Deena should have said in the film but didn’t. Beyoncé then throws in “Listen,” apparently the pivotal song from the movie. This message puts a deeper level of context on an album whose lyrical content would otherwise seem run-of-the-mill. It’s a stellar sophomore effort that makes “Dangerously” sound tame and cements the fact that there’s way more to Beyoncé than simply being the pop diva of the moment. Grade: A-

• “Happy Hollow,” Cursive—Setting aside for a moment this is a concept album that attempts to rip Christianity to shreds in every song, I still can’t connect with it. Lead singer/songwriter Tim Kasher has an abrasive voice that just hits me the wrong way. Musically, “Happy Hollow” is quite interesting, but I just can’t get past that grating vocal (in that way, Cursive reminds me of Thursday and Say Anything). And even if I did like Kasher’s voice, there’s no way I’d listen to this album ever again. My beliefs are challenged on a continual basis by pop culture and I’ve made my peace with that. “Happy Hollow” goes beyond what I’m willing to put up with—there’s nothing I can personally find redeemable in these albeit quite literal lyrics. I can understand why this album is one of the best reviewed of the year, but I’m in no position to give anywhere close to an objective opinion. Grade: N/A

• “Modern Times,” Bob Dylan—I don’t know nearly enough to put Dylan’s new album in context as a career achievement—I leave that for the experts (although Rolling Stone handing out yet another five-star review seems excessive). What amazes me, the novice, is how after 40-plus years and 40-plus albums he somehow conjures up his magic for yet another sterling set. In a time when so many of Dylan’s contemporaries are dead, retired, or irrelevant, he remains at the top of his game (how cool is that iPod commercial?). It’s strange to think Dylan’s last album, “Love and Theft,” was released on Sept. 11, 2001, because that album is loose and full of joy, so at odds with that awful day. Like so many Americans, the past five years seem to have worn on Dylan; while “Modern Times” maintains the same sound of its predecessor, the tone is much different. It’s mellower, more contemplative. “Love and Theft” seemed to stretch out and fill the room, while “Modern Times” draws in on itself, sucking you in with it. Dylan and his band make room for plenty of old-school rockin’ and rollin’ on great cuts like “Thunder On The Mountain,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” But it’s the quiet moments that really make this record. Like all 8 minutes and 48 seconds of “Ain’t Talkin’,” which doesn’t waste a heartbeat. Grade: A
***On a side note, anyone who still hasn’t purchased this CD, I recommend picking it up at Best Buy so you can have the exclusive booklet from that store which includes cover art and tracklists for every single Dylan album. It’s pretty sweet.***

• “Another Fine Day,” Golden Smog—I’m ashamed to admit I’m only well-versed in one piece of the three main bands that make up super-side project Golden Smog, featuring members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Wilco. Nor do I own any of Smog’s previous recordings, which date back to 1992. But that may not be a bad thing, because I’m guessing there are a lot of people in my same situation, meaning there’s a little something for everybody on this excellent set. For the past couple months since its release, I’ve been trying to find a bad song on this record and there just isn’t one—the only flaw may be, at 15 tracks, it’s a bit overwhelming. To mention one highlight, though, is to leave out five others equally deserving (but, okay, “Beautiful Mind” and the Kinks cover “Strangers” are particularly awesome). The influences are wide-ranging: classic rock, roots rock, pop rock, folk, country, alt-country, it’s all here—and it all sounds really good. So good, in fact, you won’t believe this is “just a side project.” Grade: A-

• “Illinois,” Sufjan Stevens—This is not a review, per se, because “Illinois” was last year’s IT indie album. I just thought I’d mention I’ve been trying for all of 2006 to like this record and finally, just this week, gave up and deleted it from my iPod. It’s just too cute, too perfect, too … I don’t know … too cold, maybe? I can see why people go crazy for Sufjan—he fits perfectly into the post-“Garden State” soundtrack world in which we all live—but it didn’t do much for me (although I do enjoy “Jacksonville”). I guess this means I have to turn in my Christian I.D. card now.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

OutKast, 'Idlewild'

My latest review is now online at Relevant. Grade: A- (Bonus points for the person who can spot the grammatical error in the first sentence—not my fault, by the way.)