Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gleeful Part Two: Guest by Request

Fans' feelings on guest stars in Glee are bitterly divided: some love them and feel they add something special to the show, while others want the show to focus on its principal cast. I'm of two minds: when the show uses a guest star really well (Kristin Chenoweth, Neil Patrick Harris), Glee is never better. When it uses a celebrity for a quick cameo (Josh Groban, Olivia Newton-John), it can be a really fun parody of the celebrity's public persona.

But then certain guest stars get woefully misused, Victor Garber and Molly Shannon principal among them. Shannon's been particularly misused, being introduced as a major character but only popping up very infrequently since for completely unsubstantive material.

As poorly executed as those guest roles are, the ones that trouble me more are those of Jonathan Groff and Idina Menzel, two key figures of rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline. Both stars are incredibly talented musically, with Groff's duet of Hello with star Lea Michele being a highlight of the back nine episodes of this season. Menzel's performances in particular, as you'll notice below, are superb. But the characterizations of both Groff's Jesse St. James and Menzel's Shelby Corcoran are disturbingly off-base. I'll do my best to keep this brief, as this post is really about the music, but this is something that's been bothering me.

First: Groff's Jesse. A rather infamous article written in Newsweek magazine, by an author so revilingly stupid I won't give him the pleasure of reprinting his name, posited the theory that gay actors who are out cannot convincingly play straight characters on television, in film, or on the stage. Groff was one of the actors singled out for this article. The theory has been roundly criticized as "completely idiotic" from anyone with a brain and a basic knowledge of Neil Patrick Harris' performance on How I Met Your Mother.

However, as much as it disgusts me to agree with anything this disgusting writer wrote, since his theory was so grossly misinformed and formed from a place of great hate, I must agree that Groff does an awful job on Glee. Now, this has absolutely nothing to do with his sexuality. He could do it with farm animals and he would still be awful as Jesse St. James.

Groff comes from a world of theater, where everything is meant to be overplayed. For some of the actors, this works to their advantage. (Michele, for example, knows how to imbue that spirit into Rachel Berry, whose life is made to be overacted.) Groff, however, comes off as nothing but a caricature, a poor role written as nothing but a stimulus to advance the plot. I don't believe that Rachel would fall for Jesse, nor that he would be able to convince any of the other characters that he wasn't plotting something underhanded. He reeks of drama, and he has only one setting: attempting to be hot. (He's not.) Again, this has nothing to do with his sexuality: he just isn't acting well IN THIS ROLE.

His character exists for one reason only: to get Rachel to realize her birth mother is his glee club director, Shelby Corcoran. Menzel plays Corcoran fairly convincingly at first, and she does the best she can with the material, but hoo boy. Shelby might be one of the worst-written characters in television history. Basically, she establishes contact with her daughter, then ditches her because it turns out not to be right after singing "Poker Face" in a stripped down, cabaret style.


I wish both characters, while musically gifted, were better formed in personality and purpose. But I digress. The music's the thing, and without further ado, I present to you the best guest performances from this season of Glee.

(Of course, Chenoweth and Groff aren't in this set, because they're featured in the duets and solos sections.)

Honorable Mentions

"Funny Girl" - Idina Menzel
This is a great song choice for so many reasons. First, it's good for the plot, because it recalls when Rachel, Shelby's daughter, chose another Barbra Streisand tune, "Don't Rain on My Parade," for sectionals. Second, Menzel sings the shit out of it. Third, it shows how theatrical one can be without being overly dramatic...a lesson promptly whacked by "Bad Romance," fun as it was. So points off for being irrelevant to the week's lesson, but still a high point of the back nine episodes.

"I Dreamed a Dream" - Idina Menzel & Lea Michele
This could easily have made it as high as No. 1 had "Poker Face" not come along and shown viewers what Menzel and Michele were really capable of. However, it's still a brilliantly reimagined duet, with the lines "And still I dream she'll come to me/That we will live the years together" not referring to a lost lover, but to a mother from a daughter desperately seeking that relationship. Beautifully sung, if a little inappropriate at moments for the storyline.

Top Three

3. "Physical" - Olivia Newton-John & Jane Lynch
Think Lynch faked her way through "Vogue" and still can't sing? Take a listen to the utterly contemporary, fun, revived "Physical" and realize that she has talent to match a legend like Newton-John. Is the vocal Auto-Tuned? Sure. They all are these days. But it's still a great performance, and one that is infinitely listenable.

2. "Dream On" - Neil Patrick Harris & Matthew Morrison
American Idol contestant Danny Gokey will happily tell you exactly how difficult to execute the scream at the end of "Dream On" truly is. But not only do Harris and Morrison do it well, they knock it out of the park. In fact, this whole duet is a home run. It's powerfully sung, almost a competitition for the two singers (which concomitantly works for the plot, as all songs should in this show but usually don't). It's a pleasure to listen to on repeat, something that doesn't happen much these days.

1. "Poker Face" - Idina Menzel & Lea Michele
GAH. Oh, sorry, that's not English. Or any language. But it is the instantaneous reaction when listening to Michele and Menzel belt this usually fast-paced, dirty ditty from Lady Gaga. They slow it down and make it a show number, even moreso than Gaga herself does in acoustic performances. The implications, er, aren't great (the song's originally about bisexuality...and this is a mother and daughter...), but neither are the implications of "Endless Love," my favorite duet of the show. Sometimes, for Glee, you've gotta suspend disbelief for what is truly amazing.

Sorry that part of this turned into a venting session, and it should not be taken as a statement of dislike for the show in any fashion. There's just no such thing as a perfect show, and since, unlike with the awful pregnancy plotlines last fall, no one is pointing out exactly how disappointing this Jesse/Shelby plotline really is, I thought I would.

And just in case anyone had any further confusion, I think the article written in Newsweek was absolute slime with absolutely no basis in fact. The author, a self-professed gay man, needs to take some time to realize exactly how stupid he sounds. But as is so often the case, upon hearing criticism born from a place of hatred, respondents choose to canonize the criticized: namely, Groff. Sadly, while Groff may be undeserving of the writer's criticism because of his sexuality, he is deserving of criticism because of his acting.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gleeful Part One: Let's Duet

As my second-favorite new show comes to an end in the next two weeks (sorry, but The Good Wife occupies the top rung), I thought paying tribute to the first season of the cultural phenomenon Glee. Through a series of four posts, I'll discuss my favorite performances from the cast in four categories: favorite guest performances, favorite solos, favorite group performances, and today's entry, best duets.

Glee amazes me with its ability to elevate songs to a different level simply because of how it's staged and performed. The greatest example of this, for me, is "Dream On" from two weeks ago, performed by Matthew Morrison and Neil Patrick Harris. Done as a showdown song, with the two Broadway veterans attempting to out scream each other on that legendary final Steven Tyler note, it hit a new level of awesome that seems to only be reachable in Glee World.

But you won't find that performance on this list. (I wouldn't be reaching to say you'll see it on the guest performances list, though...) What follows are my favorite duets from this season.

(NOTE: While I won't count Neil Patrick Harris, Idina Menzel, or Olivia Newton-John's duets in this category, I will count Kristin Chenoweth and Jonathan Groff simply because their characters are much more intertwined into the storyline of the show. Also: Chenoweth accounts for three of the best duets. Sue me.)

Honorable Mentions

"Defying Gravity" - Lea Michele & Chris Colfer
While not truly a duet, it was recorded as one, and a damn good one too. There's always been a lot of debate about whether Michele's technically perfect portion was better or worse than Colfer's impassioned performance, but I'm just fine enjoying both on this track, thanks.

"4 Minutes" - Chris Colfer & Amber Riley
Madonna's most recent hit is, let's be honest, an awful song. It sounded like a desperate woman trying to get her youth back. So you'd figure this duet would be similarly desperate. Hardly, actually: it's Colfer's best performance on the show, and Riley absolutely tears it up!

"Maybe This Time" - Kristin Chenoweth & Lea Michele
There aren't words in the human language to describe Chenoweth's performance here. Michele holds her own, sure, but Chenoweth rips this song to shreds. If it were a solo, it would be in my top three. Unfortunately, the mixing between the two singers isn't great, so it falls short of my top three duets. It's still a powerhouse vocal, though.

"Hello" - Lea Michele & Jonathan Groff
I at first thought this nothing but a pale imitation of another duet on the show (that just happens to be my No. 1 duet...), but when I bought the most recent soundtrack, I learned to love this Lionel Richie duet. It works great, and the second chorus in particular is ridiculously good. It literally just missed the top three.

The Top Three

3. "The Boy is Mine" - Amber Riley & Naya Rivera
Brandy and Monica couldn't have done it better. Rivera is quickly becoming one of the strongest vocalists on the show, and I'm sure next season when she and Heather Morris (dimwitted Brittany) get promoted to series regulars, she'll get even more moments to shine. This duet was brilliantly done, with Riley showing off exactly why everyone loves her: her powerhouse voice just can't be denied.

2. "One Less Bell to Answer / A House is Not a Home" - Kristin Chenoweth & Matthew Morrison
One of the show's signature mashups, these Burt Bacharach tunes first put together by Barbra Streisand are the perfect match for Chenoweth and Morrison. So much of it is beautifully sung, but for me, it's the interlude of "House" that Chenoweth nails and the final slow burn note that hits an amazingly high pitch that really make the song one of Glee's best.

1. "Endless Love" - Lea Michele & Matthew Morrison
Yeah, the whole thing has unfortunate implications. And it's a cheesy song, sure. But damn if Michele and Morrison don't absolutely tear it apart. It's better than any other version of this song ever, and it's a testament to this show and the singers that it holds up incredibly well on repeat listenings. Truly a masterpiece.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Tired of Oscar? Try Emmy! Now Available in Gold.

It's getting closer to summer, which means one thing to those of us who are insanely awards-minded: the Emmys. Honoring every niche in the world of television, the brutal reality of it is that only certain categories are worth caring about. What follows is my dream Emmy ballot.

Get the useless genre out of the way first, I guess. There are three categories here.

Best Reality Competition Series
What once used to be among my favorite categories is now an annoyance to me. I'd love to see Top Chef win, but it will inevitably go to The Amazing Race... American Idol and Project Runway, perennial nominees, had terrible seasons. So I guess my dream ballot consists of one winner: Chef.

Best Reality Series, Non-Competition
Is it too much to ask that the inane, trashy/fantastic Real Housewives of Atlanta be nominated here? It's campy, fun, and insanely watercooler chattable, which is everything a good reality show should be. That's about all this category has to offer, sadly.

Best Reality Competition Host
This, to me, belongs to either Heidi Klum of Project Runway or Padma Lakshmi and the fantastic Tom Collichio of Top Chef. Since the former wasn't exactly on her game this past season, give it to the two judges of my favorite reality competition.

It's not my favorite set of categories, but anything's better than that reality shlock. There are seven categories here.

Best Comedy Series
Glee and 30 Rock are tops on the air right now, and one should win. I'd also love to see nominations for Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother, and Community. I would love to see the increasingly unfunny The Office get snubbed, but that won't happen.

Best Lead Comedy Actor
Well, the category belongs to Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock, but I would love to see Joel McHale nominated for Community. Nominated, not win. Let's not get crazy.

Best Lead Comedy Actress
Tina Fey, of course, would get one of my nominations (now there's a shock). Lea Michele would too, for Glee, and I'd even give one to Cougar Town's Courtney Cox. (No Modern Family nominations here or in Lead Actor can be attributed by the cast's idiotic decision to go entirely supporting. Sweet, but truly idiotic.)

Best Supporting Comedy Actor
Jack McBrayer is routinely fantastic on 30 Rock, and it's time we properly recognized him. However, I'd say all challengers will have a tough time with Chris Colfer, Glee's resident powerhouse young actor, if he can get nominated for such an unconventional role. If he gets nominated, though, and submits this week's Lady Gaga-centric episode as one of his entries, he's won. Eric Stonestreet and Danny Pudi are both great scene-stealers on their respective comedies, and are far more likely to be nominated. (Pray that Entourage's Jeremy Piven gets passed over...)

Best Supporting Comedy Actress
Jane Lynch is Glee's greatest star, and gives a weekly clinic on what comedy truly is. Yvette Nicole Brown and Allison Brie of Community are both cute and do great work. Katrina Bowden is truly GENIUS as Cerie Xerox, useless assistant, on 30 Rock, but the more likely nomination (and the more deserving one) from that show is for Jane Krakowski, who has turned Jenna Maroney from an utterly intolerable moron into an absolute riot. And Sofia Vergara has officially ousted 30 Rock's Salma Hayek as my favorite hilariously Hispanic actress. (That's not racism, by the way: they really used their ethnicities to create brilliant comedy.)

Best Guest Comedy Actor
Michael Sheen as recurring Liz Lemon love interest Wesley Snipes (really) on 30 Rock was brilliantly pesky. Neil Patrick Harris was a lot of fun as Bryan Ryan on Glee's best episode, and his duet on "Dream On" with series star Matthew Morrison was amazing. But this belongs to Glee's most unlikely star: former Yes, Dear star Mike O'Malley. On a musical dramedy, O'Malley brings the drama, providing the most brutally honest and realistic portrayal of Burt Hummel, a supportive father of a gay teenager in television history. He should, will, and absolutely deserves to win the Emmy here. He could enter four different episodes and still win. He's genius every time he's on the show. It never feels cliché or dishonest. It feels true.

Best Guest Comedy Actress
Elizabeth Banks is brilliant as Jack Donaghy's newest girlfriend (and baby mama!) on 30 Rock. Heather Morris and Naya Rivera are the perfect cheerleaders on Glee, and Morris in particular turned into the most quotable characters on television (sometimes even moreso than Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester!). Kristin Chenoweth was such a joy to watch during both of her appearances on Glee that it's hard to see her getting snubbed here. Not only was her performance comedically gifted, hearing her "Maybe This Time," "Home," or "Alone" shows how her musical talent truly elevates her performance.

Ah, the real stuff. Not because drama is better than comedy, but because there's more quality drama on television than comedy these days. There are also seven categories here.

Best Drama Series
Mad Men should have a very difficult time this year fending off the newbie, The Good Wife, and the (likely, sadly) departing veteran Damages. All three shows had absolutely amazing seasons, with Wife's acting and writing being a breath of fresh air for the procedural genre. In fact, I'm not sure if I wouldn't give my win to Wife, too, but then I consider the last three episodes of Men this season, each of which packed more wallop than most shows get in throughout their entire series runs. Finally, Damages finally reclaimed its Season 1 glory, and in the best way. I just think that series (?) finale was insufficient, sadly.

Best Lead Drama Actor
Bryan Cranston, last year's winner, certainly does great work on Breaking Bad, but I want to see either Mad Men's Jon Hamm win after his beautiful work this season that finally proved to me that he can go so far beyond the stiff-upper-lip affect he had for the first two seasons (seriously, that episode when Betty confronted him, and he broke down? Absolute brilliance), or the extremely overdue Hugh Laurie, who shined in a down season for House, especially in its two-hour season premiere.

Best Lead Drama Actress
Julianna Marguiles redefined the procedural's protagonist with an amazing portrayal of wronged wife Alicia Florrick. This was a woman for the 21st century: one who didn't allow herself the time to pout over her husband's infidelity, instead doing what she needed to for her kids. The performance is one for the ages, as is the show. That's not to say Kyra Sedgwick isn't still overdue for her Emmy for The Closer, or that Glenn Close doesn't deserve a third for her absolutely amoral alter ego Patty Hewes on Damages. Should a nod go to January Jones? I'm not a big fan of her personally, but her performances in this season of Mad Men were nothing short of incredible. The work gets the nomination, not the person.

Best Supporting Drama Actor
Vincent Kartheiser and John Slattery are both equally deserving for their work on Mad Men, as are Martin Short and Campbell Scott for Damages, though Short would be my winner. In the "underappreciated" division, J.K. Simmons of The Closer and Robert Sean Leonard of House definitely qualify.

Best Supporting Drama Actress
I fell in love with a fictional character this season: tough-as-nails The Good Wife investigator Kalinda Sharma, played with such fire and enigma by Archie Panjabi. It's hard for me to consider anyone else for the win but Elisabeth Moss, so inspiring and revolutionary as Mad Men's Peggy Olson, but I then look not too far and see Joan Holloway Harris herself, Christina Hendricks, and wonder why that redheaded bombshell hasn't been nominated yet. Another egregious oversight: never nominating the brilliant Lisa Edelstein, who, thanks to a Cuddy-centric episode this season of House, should finally get her recognition. Two lawyers also in need of recognition: Rose Byrne, who more than holds her own against no less than Glenn Close on Damages and so often comes out of the battle as the victor, and the sometimes over-the-top Christine Baranski, who actually brought a beautiful subtlety to Diane Lockhart that I wound up loving as much as I loved Baranski by the end of the season.

Best Guest Drama Actor
Ted Danson is always brilliant in Damages, and even though he was less astounding this year, he was still Emmy-worthy. If he doesn't see a nomination, it'll be a crime. Even more of a crime would be ignoring the brilliant Alan Cumming as The Good Wife's political mastermind. His scene with a scheming 16-year old girl alone would be enough to win it for him. Also from that brilliant program is Mr. Big himself, Chris Noth, who acted brilliantly while both scheming and repenting all season as bad husband Peter Florrick. The Good Wife also had Gary Cole as ballistics expert McVeigh, a truly brilliant counterpart for Diane Lockhart. Finally, Jared Harris as British ax-man Lane Pryce was beyond incredible on Mad Men, and this season simply wouldn't have worked without him.

Best Guest Drama Actress
Lily Tomlin in Damages was a brilliant puppetmistress. And Mary McDonnell's performance in The Closer was nothing short of deliciously evil, especially when spouting vicious, self-centered bile like "My investigation must come first!" Both of them deserve nods, but the win should go to young Kiernan Shipka, a wünderkind on Mad Men at such a young age. (Also from Men: Allison Brie, also a dream nominee for me for Community!) I would also love to see Martha Plimpton nominated for her brilliant two-episode stint on The Good Wife as opposing counsel. She was just pitch-perfect.

So those are some of my favorites for the Emmys this season. Who are yours? Let me know in the comments section!

(Also: if anyone is wondering where my hatred for the reality categories came from, let's just say that Crystal Bowersox didn't win American Idol tonight, and I'm not taking it well. Stupid paint salesman...)

Who? Who Killed Samantha?

After an AP exam-induced break from blogging, I'm back to lament a great show shoved off the air by its network simply because the network couldn't figure out where to put it: Samantha Who?, the Christina Applegate-anchored sitcom about a pretty blonde amnesiac trying to reform her image post-car accident.

Applegate was winningly charming as Samantha Newly, the centerpiece of a warm, fun ensemble that included The Nines' Melissa McCarthy as former and new (it's complicated) best friend Dena, Crash's Latina cop Jennifer Esposito as the absolutely killer scene-stealing drunkard Andrea (that's Ahn-drea, not Ann-drea), 24's former First Lady Jean Smart, Vicky Cristina Barcelona blank slate Kevin Dunn, deadpan doorman Tim Russ, and 7th Heaven's eldest son Barry Watson. Each of them is infinitely better here than in any of their other projects, with Smart (deservedly) winning an Emmy for her role as Samantha's mother.

The acting ensemble was fantastic, but it was the writing, which could always have lapsed into goofy and overly-broad but always stayed smart and insanely funny, that really made this show great. It had more pacing than either Glee or 30 Rock has, and remained similarly funny, if not as over-the-top as those two programs. Not only that, but it knew the strengths of each of its players and played to those strengths, something Rock didn't really understand until halfway through its second season (and that Glee still doesn't understand, or else it wouldn't have Mr. Schuester rap...).

Why I'm bashing so hard on those two shows, despite them being two of my favorite shows on the air, is because in both of their cases, they were allowed the time to grow and gain an audience despite poor initial ratings. Samantha had great ratings behind Dancing With The Stars, yet was tossed from time slot to time slot until ABC eventually had enough of an excuse to cancel it. Of course, with shows like Modern Family, it sure seemed like they made the right decision, but if you think about it, how was Scrubs' awful last season or the dreadfully rated Better Off Ted more worthy of pickup than this gem?

For all the networks that are excited about their new fall lineups (which, I'll admit, actually look very good), they should remember that sometimes, a show takes a while to get off the ground. When they come across the instant hit that Samantha was, they shouldn't take it for granted.