Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spring TV Roundup: 3 Up, 2 Down

UPDATE (Saturday, 5.2.09)
Looks like "Kings" is on its way out. First it was moved from Sundays to Saturdays, and now it's been pulled altogether, to be burned off this summer. Ah well. Despite my review, I really did like this show—found it fascinating, if nothing else. Ian McShane floats all boats, and he was certainly worth the effort. I'll still watch, but it just seems high-concept shows can't make it on broadcast TV anymore. Don't expect another "Lost" anytime soon.

On another note: I've caught up on "Castle," and, wow, did it pick up steam in its most recent three episodes. This show just gets better and better as Katic gets more comfortable in the role. The writers, too, seem more comfortable, as Beckett is finding a rhythm with Castle; she's still exasperated from time to time, but it's more of a partnership now than a chore. Plus, the stuff with Castle's family is gold every time.


I picked up three hour-long dramas on the TV schedule this spring, and found all to be at least satisfactory and worth coming back for each week. Unfortunately it looks like only one of them is going to make it to next season; thankfully, it’s the best of the bunch.

Finally! Nathan Fillion has a hit! After his previous two starring vehicles were canceled early—one great (“Firefly”), one not (“Drive”)—this crime procedural looks like it has some genuine legs. All the credit goes to Fillion and his quite capable straightman, er, woman, Stana Katic, in her first starring role.

Fillion plays crime novelist Richard Castle, who is shadowing Katic’s Det. Kate Beckett for research on his next book. Beckett likes it none too much, of course, thanks to Castle’s roguish attitude and penchant for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong, but that’s where all the fun comes in. The premise is ludicrous, of course, since Castle is always figuring out ways to help solve each week’s case, but I find his character’s insights and processes fascinating (I’m a sucker for well-written author characters). And reality is so beyond the point, anyway. This show is all about the leads, and Fillion and Katic play off each other quite well—it’s no Booth and Brennan, mind you, but definitely entertaining. Like their first cousins, maybe. Fillion is, of course, utterly charming, and Katic is slowly chipping some of the ice off Beckett, which is a very good thing.

Call it “Bones: Even Liter.” I’m hooked.

Grade: B+

This modern-day retelling of the Saul/David story is ambitious in so many good ways—probably too ambitious for network TV, which is partly why it failed to find an audience. The real culprit, though, is creator Michael Green’s (“Heroes”) betrayal of the source material. Christians have proven time and again that when pop culture treats our heritage and beliefs with respect, we turn out in droves (“Passion of the Christ” vs. “The Last Temptation of Christ,” for example). Green may use the basic premise and some of the same names as found in the Bible, but little else resembles the original narrative. Instead, he relies on liberal tropes such as nationalized health care, gay rights, and corporate greed to drive the drama on "Kings."

The most egregious error, though, is the show's portrayal of David. Played by relative newcomer Chris Egan, the future king here is an utter impotent wimp who, in stark contrast to the David of the Bible, has little or no faith in God. Even his famous showdown with Goliath is shown as a hollow act of mere blind luck, not a divine reward for steadfast faith from the Almighty.

My primary reason for watching is the incomparable Ian McShane (“Deadwood”), who anchors the show with his considerable gravitas in the role of King Silas. His counterpart is written so meekly, though, all the tension between the two supposed titans of history is utterly contrived. I appreciate Green’s fascinating interpretation of a modern, albeit fictional, kingdom, with its own complete set of laws, customs, and social idiosyncrasies. But by largely abandoning the characters’ biblical roots, Green abandoned his chance at greatness—and widespread popularity.

What a wasted opportunity.

Grade: C+

I’ll always watch anything Joss Whedon does, based solely on my love for “Firefly.” But this latest creation is lacking the certain quirky spark that defined both his classic space Western and his other cult TV hits, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” “Dollhouse” is a darker, more serious affair than any of those shows, which allows for almost none of the writer’s trademark wit and deep characters.

The problem starts with the premise, as Eliza Dushku’s superagent, Echo, is quite literally a blank slate with no defining characteristics at all (other than looking hot at all times); a personality is imprinted on her brain each week as she engages in a new mission. It’s sort of an “Alias” meets “Minority Report” vibe. While every episode is filled with compelling action and there is an interesting overall story arc to the series, the center doesn’t hold because Echo doesn’t give us anything tangible to hold on to.

Because of this, I find no real connection to the show. It’s the strangest thing: Each week I almost have to force myself to hit “play” on the DVR, yet I get sucked into the narrative every time. But, much like Echo, “Dollhouse” gets wiped clean from my head and the process starts all over again next time a new episode pops up.

Not exactly the stuff cult legends are made of. I don’t think people are going to be watching these 14 episodes over and over again for years to come, like I continue to do with a certain other Whedon project.

Grade: B-

Friday, April 03, 2009

‘If I Had Known Then What I Know Now’: Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten—Remix’

I’m not big into remastered CDs. I don’t own any of the recent re-releases from Bruce Springsteen or U2, and you’re talking some of my favorite albums of all time, there. I like the way the originals sound—that’s what I fell in love with in the first place—and I like how that sound is set within the context of the time it was recorded. I don’t need or want them to feel like something written yesterday.

What Pearl Jam has done with “Ten,” however, is a whole different matter.

It may have sold 10 million copies or whatever, but the simple fact is Pearl Jam’s debut album from 1991 sounds like it was recorded in mud. The main culprit was probably the heavy use of reverb on seemingly every instrument—including Eddie Vedder’s voice. The only release in Pearl Jam’s catalog helmed by Rick Parashar, “Ten” sounds nothing like any of the band’s other albums.

Bassist Jeff Ament has been quoted in recent interviews saying he’s wanted a second take on “Ten” almost from the moment it was finished. A few weeks ago, he and many of his fans got their wish with a new version, remixed by longtime band producer Brendan O’Brien.

I can’t envision listening to the old one much anymore.

“Ten—Remix” is just shy of revelatory. Not every song is an obvious improvement, but those that are really are. Ask 11 different Pearl Jam fans their favorite remix and you could get 11 different answers, but I’m partial to “Garden.” This song was perhaps the worst offender of Parashar’s sludgy production the first time around; O’Brien’s remix takes the song out of the dungeon and allows some sunlight to break through. “Garden” is a manifestation of everything right about this project: it’s crisp, clear, and allows you to hear parts you’ve never been able to before. Three other tracks stand out, as well: “Porch” moves Mike McCready’s lead guitar much farther forward in the mix, making the iconic song even more aggressive, which I didn’t think possible; “Why Go” and “Jeremy,” meanwhile, have all sorts of little nooks and crannies of guitar work I never knew existed. “Jeremy,” in particular—a song Pearl Jam got so sick of they nearly retired it—is reinvigorated here.

This newfound clarity is most obvious on the monumental outro jams that populate many of “Ten’s” tracks. You’ve never heard the last minute and a half of “Alive” until you’ve heard this version; the same could be said for “Jeremy,” “Black,” and others. O’Brien’s touch somehow allows you to hear all of the constituent parts of the onslaught, without sacrificing their wall-of-sound power. The biggest surprise to this remix is discovering how much texture and nuance was happening underneath the surface of these songs. It brings the tracks more into alignment with the direct sonic approach Pearl Jam has taken on all its succeeding records, making "Ten" feel like a cohesive part of the band's catalog in a way it never has before. More than anything, O'Brien's work unearths what we've come to discover over the succeeding years: These guys are amazing musicians.

Keep in mind, though, these are not alternate versions, merely remixes. The basic guts of what makes “Ten” a classic album are still there—the tremendous songs. O’Brien has merely taken a fresh approach and cleaned them up a bit. To the casual fan, I doubt it would be worth buying; the differences aren’t those you’d pick up during a listen driving down the highway.

No, “Ten—Remix” will only be fully appreciated by those who have listened to the original hundreds or thousands of times since 1991. And that is another crucial point to this whole endeavor. Once again, Pearl Jam have proven themselves worthy of fans’ adoration by throwing their full weight into a project—both for themselves, and their core audience. They could have let their former record company, Sony, play out the string on this whole remaster thing and tossed the new disc out there. Instead, they didn’t just go the extra mile, they went the extra hundred miles.

I’m referring, of course, to the “super deluxe” packaging option with this release. Among its peers, it’s a work of art; I’ve never seen its equal. Contained within a striking linen-covered box are not only the remastered and remixed CDs, but their corresponding LPs, as well as the band’s famous “MTV Unplugged” performance on DVD and a double-LP set of a 1992 concert (which, nicely, includes a code to download a digital version, for those who don’t have a record player).

And, oh, there’s more. The band re-created the original demo tape Ament and fellow guitarist Stone Gossard sent to Vedder back in 1990. The tape featured the music tracks for three songs that, as legend has it, Eddie dubbed vocals over following a surfing session where he came up with the lyrics. The three songs eventually became “Alive,” “Once,” and “Footsteps,” otherwise known as the “Momma-Son” trilogy. To go to the trouble of replicating this founding document of Pearl Jam history is quite impressive, and welcome.

And, oh, there’s even more. Also included in the set is another re-creation, this one of Vedder’s trademark marble notebook. Inside, Ament and Vedder collected photos and other mementos from the band’s first couple years together. The hodgepodge of setlists, hand-written notes, backstage passes, and other memorabilia is a fascinating and subtle documentation of just how insane their lives must have been during that time. It’s no wonder they almost split on multiple occasions. And it’s also no wonder they won over legions of fans with their live shows.

The broader context for this massive “Ten” reissue is this: Pearl Jam always tries to do things the way they feel is right. They may not always succeed, but you can’t fault them for the attempt. Here they win unanimously, on all cards. The re-release is just the latest example for why they are one of the best bands of their generation, and, more importantly, why nearly two decades after they recorded these tracks, they’re still together and playing to an equally strong and faithful audience.