Thursday, December 13, 2007


Terry Goodkind’s “Confessor” accomplishes the rarest of feats in any narrative medium. As the 11th volume in his renowned Sword of Truth series of novels, this final installment not only brings the story to a satisfying close, it manages to exceed all reasonable expectations.

In preparation for the highly anticipated “Confessor,” I reread “Phantom,” the preceding novel in the series; I probably should have gone back to No. 1, too. One of the most amazing aspects of “Confessor” is the way Goodkind revisits and resolves elements that track all the way back through his world to “Wizard’s First Rule,” first published way back in 1994. I don’t know for sure if Goodkind knew his endpoint when he began this saga or if he just flowed and worked it out as he went; either way, the author’s ability to weave multiple plotlines together in “Confessor” without their connections coming off as forced is stunning. And what a spectacularly gratifying experience this book is, as nearly every character we’ve come to know and love through these novels gets a victory lap—including several we haven’t heard from in years.

If “Confessor” was simply a Sword of Truth family reunion, though, it wouldn’t work. No, with this volume Goodkind delivers some of the most intense passages of the entire series. Though it does drag a bit for about a hundred early pages, upon finishing the book it seems Goodkind was merely building tension to an almost unbearable level before letting it explode and explode and explode some more over the course of the novel’s second half. Several times at the end of a chapter I went back and reread what I’d just gone through, it’s that gripping. My heart pounded, my breath got a little tight, and I broke out into sweats as my eyes scoured the pages. Other times I broke into wide grins, laughed out loud, and even wanted to release an occasional cheer.

I’d like nothing better than to go on and on for hundreds or thousands of words about all the scenes and sections I loved, but that would certainly spoil the experience for others. What I can say, however, is that Goodkind—in true Richard fashion—remained true to himself with this novel, and nothing about “Confessor” besmirches the narrative and philosophical integrity he’s built over the course of 11 books. Not everyone will like the ending, but in this fan’s opinion, I can’t imagine the series concluding in a better way.

Now that the Sword of Truth has reached its conclusion, the true majesty and scope of Goodkind’s work can be fully appreciated. As a whole, these novels never floundered. Sure, different readers will have different entries that didn’t speak to them (mine is “Pillars of Creation”), and his writing is far from the most polished you’ll ever read, but Goodkind’s overall quality is unassailable. The fact that he was able to sustain such intensity over the course of so many thousands of pages is downright remarkable.

But that really comes back to the beginning, and the reason Goodkind became a writer in the first place: The story of Richard and Kahlan. Though he can be longwinded and repeats certain phrases too many times, Goodkind took his time in letting us get to know these two fabulous and singular characters, and this book is the ultimate payoff. Though Goodkind has hinted in the past at writing about Richard and Kahlan beyond the Sword of Truth series, “Confessor” ends so perfectly, I don’t know where he could go from here. I may not even want him to try.

The journey was exemplary. The conclusion is extraordinary. What a wonderful series of books.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Good Times, Bad Times: The Return of ‘Led Zeppelin’

The first time I heard Led Zeppelin, I was riding in my uncle’s 4Runner as we traveled through the foothills of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. It was summer 1993. I had just turned 14, just graduated from middle school—no longer a boy, not yet a man. When my cousin popped “Led Zeppelin IV” into the CD player and I heard Robert Plant’s opening howl on “Black Dog,” followed by that unmistakable guitar explosion, my life changed forever.

I didn’t know it at the time, of course. Looking back, though, more than 14 years later I understand how hearing Zeppelin for the first time was a personal watershed. I’m sure I brought some music with me on that two-week trip across the country, but I have absolutely no recollection of what it may have been. It must have been total crap, because that’s all I listened to at that time. I had no older sibling to tell me to listen to The Who’s “Tommy” with the lights off, so I was subjected to whatever my stupid friends thought was cool at the time—most likely some awful pop/hip-hop. Whatever it was, Zeppelin obliterated it with a double-neck guitar assault, and I never looked back.

When I returned home, I immediately bought three Zeppelin tapes (yes, tapes!): “Led Zeppelin I,” “Physical Graffiti,” and “Led Zeppelin IV.” Not a bad way to be baptized in rock and roll.

I listened to those cassettes incessantly that summer and fall, but it wasn’t until the night before Thanksgiving that I took my next leap. As was tradition, I was staying at another cousin’s house in preparation for Turkey Day; after everyone else had gone to bed, I went downstairs and found next to her CD player the original Led Zeppelin four-disc box set.

It was like opening a treasure chest.

I stayed up into the wee hours that night (morning, actually) exploring those four glorious CDs, freaking myself out as I read the insert booklet’s hints of pagan blood rituals and other devilish deeds. At that time, growing up under the artistically, intellectually, and spiritually stunted auspices of what would eventually become a corrupt church, I was in the process of being indoctrinated with the worst kind of pop-culture paranoia. I worried that listening to this music would literally condemn me to hell … or at least make God real, real mad at me.

But I couldn’t tear my ears away from it. Thinking back, “In My Time of Dying” stands out most from that Thanksgiving Eve night. It was an 11-minute epic of such power, ferocity, and beauty the likes of which I’d never heard before.

Other than my very first CD player, that box set was the only other thing I really wanted for Christmas that year. My cousin came through, and my full-flight journey into rock and roll was officially under way—if a bit late.


I still have those original four CDs, and I cannot believe they still work. I played them almost incessantly, even as Zeppelin led me to other bands in those early days of exploration, most notably Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Metallica, and Aerosmith. Zeppelin faded to the background over the years as I discovered more and more bands, but their music never truly left me. When I popped Disc 2 of that box set in my car just today, I could still sing along to every single word on all 15 tracks. And my goodness those songs are still so glorious.

Given that history, it might come as a surprise that I felt little excitement over the band’s reunion show last night in London. Don’t get me wrong: If someone had given me tickets and airfare, I’d have been there without question. But the reviewers can pant and genuflect all they want—that wasn’t Led Zeppelin that took the stage. It was simply Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and Jason Bonham, son of drummer John Bonham. No, Zeppelin died in 1980 with John in a puddle of his own vomit.

I won’t deny it was cool to see the three original members onstage together (via clips on YouTube), even if Page’s ghostly white hair is a bit unsettling. It’s just nearly not the same. I wasn’t even alive for Zeppelin’s heyday, but from everything I’ve seen and heard and read, there’s just no way it could be duplicated, no matter how many millions of fans and journalists would like to think such a thing possible.

This was certainly a special event, though, and I hope it stays that way. I don’t want a “reunion tour,” even though I’d probably break down and buy tickets anyway. They’ve resisted that juicy, money-laden red apple for nearly three decades, and it would be a pity to succumb to it now. It’s amazing that a group of such hedonistic, almost unthinkably indulgent men could hold themselves to such artistic integrity upon the death of their friend and bandmate—to immediately shut Led Zeppelin down for good and mean it—but they’ve conducted themselves quite well in these intervening years.

I much prefer what Plant and Page did in the 1990s with their re-imagining of the Zeppelin catalog through sitars and hurdy-gurdies. That was something fresh, something new, something that said “screw it” to people clamoring for cheap imitation and instead went in a completely different direction in a way that probably disappointed a good portion of Zep fans.

By going so far out, the duo’s return to more traditional, straightforward rock and roll with 1998’s “Walking to Clarksdale” was a natural next step. The album was just OK, but I saw them perform during that tour and it was fabulous. Most of the songs were culled from the old days, but it wasn’t forced or underwhelming because they weren’t trying to tour as the monster that is “LED ZEPPELIN”; instead, it just felt like two old friends who wanted to reconnect through a common bond. They played together for a summer, then went their separate ways. It was great.

Last night was great, too, for what it was: A fitting and special way for them to honor a former friend and mentor. Here’s hoping they can ignore the clamor—and the untold millions of potential dollars—and let their decades-long song of silence remain the same.

Here’s the setlist from London:

Good Times Bad Times
Ramble On
Black Dog
In My Time of Dying
For Your Life (first time played live—ever)
Trampled Under Foot
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
No Quarter
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Dazed and Confused
Stairway to Heaven
The Song Remains the Same
Misty Mountain Hop

First Encore:
Whole Lotta Love

Second Encore:
Rock and Roll

A few thoughts on the selection:

I can’t argue with a single choice here, but I’m a bit surprised that “Ramble On” appeared so early. Seems a bit of a momentum killer to me—too quiet of a song for that point in the set, with the crowd in what I can only imagine was a fever pitch.

Very cool that they pulled out “For Your Life”—adventurous right to the end, these guys.

The only thing more I could have hoped for was maybe a mini-acoustic set somewhere in the middle, like Page and Plant did in ’98. Something like “Going to California” into “That’s the Way” into “The Rain Song,” with “Ramble On” to follow and warm things back up.

On the other hand, it’s clear from this set they were in a mood to go out and just melt faces all over the place for two straight hours. I keep looking for a spot to jump in and say, “Wow, from [this song] to [this song] must have just been amazing,” but there’s really no good place to start such a sentence except at the beginning of the show.

So, “Wow, from ‘Good Times Bad Times’ to ‘Rock and Roll’ must have just been amazing.”

I just wonder if that amazement would wear out over the course of a grueling worldwide tour.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Deciphering 'The Golden Compass'

By this point you've probably heard something about "The Golden Compass," a new fantasy movie opening this Friday with an all-star cast headlined by Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. The film is based on a novel of the same name by author Philip Pullman, and its generating a bit of controversy since Pullman, a self-proclaimed atheist, didn't even try to hide his attempt at discrediting and, if he's lucky, destroying Christianity.

Attacking Christ and those who believe in Him is nothing new, of course, especially in Hollywood. So that's why I was so glad to read Jeffrey Overstreet's piece on "Compass" over at It's one of the most intelligent, rational, sensible, and humble responses to such an issue I've ever read; it manages to slice Pullman's work to ribbons while giving the author his due respect and not resorting to rhetoric or histrionics. And while this article is focused on "Compass," Overstreet touches on other topics, too, most notably the nonsense responses of some to the Harry Potter franchise.

Overstreet's dissection is so good, in fact, it really could be about any piece of pop culture teeing up Christianity, because it speaks to both sides of a perpetually heated environment of strife.

I cannot recommend this story highly enough. It provides practical direction for Christians to follow in what can often feel like a world ablaze with hate.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

2007: My Favorite TV Series of the Year

About this time last year, I decided to blend my best-of TV and movie lists into one, since the “boob tube” has become such a strong competitor with major motion pictures. The trend certainly continued this year, and the TV I watched was so strong I decided to give it back its own category.

Here are the best series I watched in 2007:

1. “Lost”
May’s two-hour season finale of “Lost” was without question the best piece of filmed entertainment I saw all year, on television or in the movie theater. Not only that, it’s one of the single greatest episodes of TV I’ve ever seen. The closing scene has veritably haunted me throughout the latter part of the year; though I’ve only watched it twice, my thoughts often drift back to the last few seconds of the show, that’s what a mind-job of an episode it was (“episode” doesn’t even feel like the right word).

The second season of “Lost” was a wreck, and I just about gave up on it. But the show returned to form in fall 2006 with its mini-season of six episodes that effectively catapulted the momentum forward into 16 stellar episodes this past spring—every single one was good, and several were downright great. It all culminated in the season finale, but I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling things for those who may not have seen it (the Season 3 DVD set hits Dec. 11, and I’m trying to come up with reasons why I shouldn’t buy it).

The conclusion of Season 3 was so outstanding and turned the tables on the series so violently, my only fear is that the production team of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof won’t be able to handle the shape-shifting, time-altering, brain-teasing beast of a twist they unleashed in the closing seconds of this last ep. My hope, on the other hand, lies in their unprecedented commitment to end the show once and for all after three more 16-episode seasons. If they already have the endpoint in mind and know where the target is they have to hit and when, then maybe they have a shot at getting us there in one piece.

After this stunning season, I’ll certainly be there for every single step.

Favorite Episodes Other Than the Season Finale:
“The Brig”/“The Man Behind the Curtain”—These two ran back-to-back. In the first, Locke and Sawyer work out some Daddy issues; in the second, we get a look at Ben’s history.

2. “Arrested Development”
For about, oh, the past decade I thought no comedy could ever possibly come close to my love for “Seinfeld.” Well, this year “Arrested Development” sure made a run at it. I blame a combination of poor marketing by Fox (they should have played up the dry wit as much as the loony elements in the commercials) and tough timeslot competition (originally Sunday nights opposite “Alias”) for missing this show when it first aired, but I made up for lost time this summer on DVD. Certainly not since Larry David left “Seinfeld” has a show been better written than “AD,” and with such fully developed and iconic characters (Will Arnett’s G.O.B. is my favorite). This show packs more jokes and gut-busting laughs into 20 minutes than any I’ve ever seen—you have to watch each episode at least twice in hopes of even catching the majority of them. All three seasons are gold, Jerry, gold.

Favorite Episode: “The One Where They Build the House” (Season 2)—Tobias dresses as a Blue Man to spy on his wife, Lindsey. What else needs be said?

3. “Dexter”
It must take some twisted minds to make a serial killer seem sympathetic, but such is the case with this wonderfully gruesome and morally gray Showtime drama starring Michael C. Hall (“Six Feet Under”). Hall is Dexter, a charming and, yes, likeable serial killer whose foster father taught him to control and sate his bloodthirsty urges by living according to “The Code of Harry”—meaning, only attack and chop up bad people who’ve managed to avoid the law (Dexter works for the Miami Police Department as a blood-spatter specialist, no less!). This show gives you everything: Gripping drama, emotionally resonant characters, probing moral questions, heart-pounding suspense, mindbending mystery, and even a chuckle now and again. Certainly one of the best series on TV—if you can get past the sliced and diced bodies, of course.

Favorite Episode: “Shrink Wrap” (Season 1)—As a longtime “Sopranos” fan, maybe I’m just a sucker for therapy-themed shows (as you’ll also see in No. 4). This ep puts Dex on the couch to great effect. Plus, Lauren Velez’s work as Lt. Laguerta is absolutely outstanding. PLUS, the hour ends with a tremendous reveal about the Ice Truck Killer. Yes, it’s a killer episode.

4. “Bones”
I didn’t pick up on this delightful show (is that really the right term for a series about decayed skeletons?) until this fall, but it’s become an instant favorite. This stems primarily from the dynamic duo of co-stars Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz (Angel from “Buffy”), who admirably pick up the Mulder/Scully baton, albeit with a lighter mood. Deschanel plays the title character, otherwise known as Dr. Temperance Brennan, a brilliant and beautiful forensic anthropologist who specializes in, you guessed it, bones; Boreanaz is her FBI agent partner, Seeley Booth (what a great name!), who calls Bones in to solve crimes involving skeletal remains. Though Bones and Booth uncover a carcass-related mystery each week, it’s their crackling chemistry and lightning wit that make “Bones” more than just another “CSI” (Boreanaz says they improv together every weekend to hone their repartee). In true Fox “fair and balanced” fashion, the two investigators typically take up opposite sides of a given issue and debate the philosophy while working the puzzle. Bones, the atheist scientist, tends toward the humanist response, whereas Booth, a devout Catholic, comes from a more spiritual and—dare I say the evil word?—conservative perspective. The great thing about the show is that rarely does it make a judgment either way; the lead characters present their arguments to each other and, thus, the audience as well, and the writers deftly leave it up to us to decide who we agree with more. Who knew decaying corpses could be so entertaining? And, to top it all off: The show is set in D.C.!

Favorite Episode: “The Secret in the Soil” (Season 3)—Again, another shrink-themed installment. This one puts Bones and Booth in front of young Dr. Lance Sweets (dubbed “Sweets” for short, by Booth), and forces a revealing look at their relationship. A strong runner-up goes to the Halloween-themed episode, though—somebody needs to cast Deschanel in the Wonder Woman movie because she looks perfect in that outfit (see below)!

5. “The Office” (American version)
I was opposed to this show back when it debuted in 2005 because, as a big fan of the original British version, I simply wasn’t interested in a bad American knockoff. And that notion certainly wasn’t helped at all whenever I caught pieces of this “Office” over the past few years, because American star Steve Carell shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as the original “Office” star Ricky Gervais (even though, technically, I did just mention them in the same sentence). I was pressured into watching the American version by friends, though, and after giving it a fair shake (all of Season 2 on DVD and, concurrently, this fall’s start to Season 4), I definitely grew to like it and understand why so many others do, too. Make no mistake: I still cannot stand Carell’s Michael Scott, and he isn’t anywhere close to the same league as Gervais’ David Brent. Here’s the key difference: Gervais played Brent as smarmy and uncouth; Carell plays Scott as smarmy and just dumb. As every “Office” fan I’ve ever talked to has told me, I can now confirm: It’s the rest of the cast and the characters they play that make this “Office” worth watching—and downright addicting. Pam, Jim, Dwight, Stanley, Toby … every single person in that building is funny in their own way, and had me laughing uproariously this fall. Unfortunately, since Carell’s the big star, he gets the majority of the screen time. Here’s hoping he gets tired of slumming in TV and moves exclusively to feature films, because much like his character, this “Office” would keep right on tickin’ without him.

Favorite Episode: “The Injury” (Season 2)—Michael burns his foot in his George Foreman Grill, and Dwight goes to rescue him. Tears-down-the-cheeks hilarity ensues.

6. “Flight of the Conchords”
How can you resist Bret and Jemaine, otherwise known as Flight of the Conchords—New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody duo? These two lovable, doe-eyed morons delivered the best new comedy of the year, along with their even more clueless manager Murray (“New Zealand: Why not?”), and uber fan/stalker Mel. The key to the show is the contrast between Bret and Jemaine’s low-key, monotone real-life personalities and the extraordinary expressiveness they display during their inner monologue songs. “Business Time,” “Bowie’s in Space,” “What You’re In To” … every episode had at least one instant classic. So glad the show was picked up for another season.

Favorite Episode: “Mugged,” which featured Bret and Jemaine in their gangsta rap personalities, “Rhymenoceros” and “Hiphopopotamus,” whose rhymes are bottomless …

7. “Entourage”
“Entourage” may have leaned a bit too far toward the drama and away from the yuks, but the series gets massive credit for delivering, on the whole, entertainment of the highest quality for five straight months—a marathon in HBO’s world. Jeremy Piven remains the No. 1 reason to watch this show, but this year it got back to examining the underbelly deals of Hollywood. What I love about “Entourage,” other than the sparkling (if profane) dialogue, is the education it provides. My brother and I talk about this all the time: Watching this show, you come away feeling like you know a lot more about the business. And its writing staff continues to live right on the cutting edge of current trends and hot-button issues; just days after featuring a weed “doctor” in an episode, for example, a real-life huckster of the same ilk got busted in California. And in 2009, Javier Bardem will star in “Killing Pablo,” about, yep, Pablo Escobar, whom Vinny Chase portrays in the fictional biopic “Medellin.”

Favorite Episodes: Since “Entourage”—in HBO’s insane math—actually gave us two seasons this year, I gotta include two episodes. First, Season 4 premiere “Welcome to the Jungle” was a revelation in half-hour comedy filmmaking, as it took us on-set documentary-style for the production of “Medellin” (and provided one of the best Johnny Drama scenes ever). Second, “The WeHo Ho,” where Ari has to cover for Lloyd (the best secondary character on TV. Period.) so the loyal assistant can get out of trouble with his boyfriend and come back to work.

8. “The Sopranos”
After a disappointing 2006 run, the legendary HBO mob drama did return to form this year—for a while, anyway.

Favorite Episode: “Remember When,” Uncle Junior’s coup de grace.


1. “24”
No surprise here. Despite a few moments of grace here and there (the fight near the end of the season between Jack and the big bad terrorist was one of the best action scene of the series), this show experienced a rather stunning fall after 2006’s Emmy-winning Day 5. Day 7 isn’t off to a great start, either, what with multiple rewrites, Keifer Sutherland’s DUI arrest/jail time, and now postponed production due to the Writers Guild strike. I’m starting to think Jack Bauer isn’t the only one cursed.

Worst Episode: Wow, so many to choose from. I’ll go with the fourth episode of the season, “9:00-10:00 AM,” because the end of this installment is where the whole season started to go wrong. Up to this point, things were pretty good, what with Jack back from the clutches of the Chinese and dealing with the ramifications of his captivity and torture. But toward the end ***SPOILER ALERT*** Jack kills fellow CTU agent Curtis Manning, a choice that also proved fatal for the writers this season. Too many likeable characters were killed in too quick a time (going back to Day 5), leaving a huge vacuum in the show’s empathy quotient and too much screen time for weak members of the series (I’m looking right at you Morris!). And then to top it all off, the freakin’ nuclear bomb goes off in Valencia. This was WAY too early for such a dramatic event, and it established a plot hole so massive, not even the fantasy world of “24” could overcome it: There just wasn’t enough fallout after the bomb. For the most part, life in “24’s” California went on as if nuclear bombs go off all the time. Yes, this episode was the first step into Day 6’s abyss.

2. “Heroes”
I never fell head-over-heels for “Heroes” (it was always a bit too self-aware of its own mythology) but it was one of my favorite shows of 2006. Everything was going all right this year, too, right up until the final three episodes. Creator Tim Kring probably should have just stopped with the excellent time-warp-to-the-future episode “Five Years Gone,” because the show plummeted after that.

Worst Episode: “How to Stop an Exploding Man,” the Season 1 finale. So, so, so awful on every conceivable level. This episode was so bad, I immediately gave up on the series the second the credits started rolling, and haven’t watched it since. Good thing, too, since Kring gave Entertainment Weekly an exclusive interview a few weeks back frankly admitting how much Season 2 has sucked. Points for honesty, but nowhere near enough to bring me back.

3. “The Sopranos”
The finale sucked, plain and simple. Reiterating thoughts brought up by “No Country for Old Men,” I’m not one who needs everything tied up in a nice, tidy bow. But there are ways to do no resolution (see the series finale of “Deadwood,” for example) … and then there’s cutting to a black screen in the middle of a scene. It was cheap, gimmicky, and a deliberate F-you from David Chase. Which I guess shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Worst Episode: “Kennedy and Heidi” not only featured the stupid and unsatisfying death of my favorite “Sopranos” character, but it also provided the series’ last infamous Tony dream sequence. You either like these or you don’t. I do not.

4. “PTI”
The budding TV fame and success of co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon has not been good for this duo. With a year of “Monday Night Football” under his belt, Kornheiser is even more of an insufferable arrogant snob than ever—it used to be funny, now it’s just annoying. Wilbon’s on TV more and more now, too, which has relegated him to little more than talking-head status alongside his longtime buddy—the likes of which they’ve both abhorred and decried for years. When “PTI” first came on the air six years ago, both of these guys were still working regularly as columnists for The Washington Post; there were out there, down in the trenches. Now Kornheiser doesn’t write at all, and Wilbon only occasionally as they get sucked deeper and deeper into the ESPN bubble. Losing what little touch with reality they may have had working in the Post newsroom on a regular basis hasn’t been good for either of them and their groundbreaking sports debate show. Don’t get me wrong: I still watch it, but they’re both so full of themselves now, “PTI” has lost its singular humor, charm, and edge (they both suck up to everybody now, and Wilbon only gets animated about issues that don’t matter). Now I look forward to the days when the Miami Herald’s Dan le Betard subs for one of them, because he still gets it.

5. “Football Night in America”
I absolutely hate this show. It was in Week 1 of this season, I think, when I looked at the screen and realized there isn’t a single person on this Sunday-night recap show that I don’t despise, especially with the additions of the insufferable Keith Olbermann (who may actually be the Worst Person in the World) and Tiki Barber. All I want on Sunday nights is HIGHLIGHTS—and a lot of them. Since the NFL banned ESPN from running the infinitely superior “NFL Prime Time,” now all I get on NBC is 30 seconds of footage and 3 minutes of talking heads for each game. “Football Night in America” needs more actual football, because its current version is horrendous.