Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Last Blog of the Decade!

Looking back at this past year, my taste in TV shows shifted ever so slightly. I've never been on a high diet of crime procedurals or science fiction, and I don't watch as many reality shows as I used to, so luckily for me it was a strong year for new comedies. As some of my old favorites continued to age, I found plenty of fresh blood to keep me entertained. Unlike my monthly music inventories, my list of five favorites is not intended to be complete; sometimes I read those critics' best-of lists, and it's like they're taunting me for nothing having HBO or Showtime. Nevertheless...
1. "Mad Men," AMC. Just when the muted angst and slow-like-molasses plot movement was about to drive fans away, some British dude gets run over by John Deere tractor. As grotesque as that scene might've been, it was an unexpected high point in what was probably the show's strongest season yet. The JFK assassination, the defining moment in American history that warped the perfected, Camelot-esque existences of nearly every principal character, was treated with realism, gravitas, and an unexpected level of shock. Memorable Episodes: "Guy Walks Into An Ad Agency," "The Grown-Ups," "Shut The Door, Have a Seat."
2. "Parks & Recreation," NBC. This show might be the pleasant surprise of the year. What was initally conceived as a slapped-together, in-it-for-the-money spinoff of "The Office" has become a tight political satire about the lowest and seemingly irrelevant rungs of local government. If this show was merely a star vehicle for Amy Poehler, P&R would've died a quick death. Instead, it thrives on the strength of its supporting cast; Aniz Ansari has found a breakthrough role in affable d-bag Tom Haverford, while Nick Offerman has proven to be a Rock of Gibralter as breakfast-loving sourpuss Ron Swanson. Memorable Episodes: "The Stakeout," "Practice Date," "Kaboom."
3. "Community," NBC. I'm surprised that I haven't seen this show on more best-of lists. Much like its fellow Thursday night comedies, "Community" revels in the latent absurity of its setting (a West Coast junior college) and the precision-like casting of its ensemble (dark horse Emmy consideration for Joel McHale and Danny Pudi). Memorable Episodes: "Spanish 101," "Football, Feminism, and You," "Debate 109."
4. "Modern Family," ABC. Though nothing will ever replace "Arrested Development" in most comedy geeks' hearts, "Family" is a strong heir apparant. Brownie points to Ed O'Neill for not playing his grandfather/sugar daddy character as a rehash of Al Bundy, and Ty Burrell may very well be reinventing the cookie-cutter "idiot dad" archetype. Memorable Episodes: "The Bicycle Thief," "Come Fly With Me."
5. "Better Off Ted," ABC. Like my #4 pick, "Ted" is the next-generation model of another brilliant-but-cancelled early '00s Fox series, "Andy Richter Controls The Universe." (The fact that it's produced by Michael Fresco and co-stars Jon Slavin is no coincidence.) Alas, it appears that nobody's watching and ABC is antsing to pull the plug, so enjoy this while you can. Memorable Episodes: "Racial Sensitivity," "Jabberwocky."
Honorable Mentions: "Glee," Fox; "American Dad," Fox.

Best British Import: "Look Around You." A wry parody of the educational strips that you watched in elementary school, with topics ranging from math to germs. "Look Around You" aired for two seasons on BBC earlier in the decade, but it became a cult favorite online and Adult Swim picked up the TV rights in early '09. Each episode is about ten minutes long, which also makes it perfect for viewing on YouTube.

Of course, no year is perfect. These were my three least favorite TV shows in '09:
1. "Sit Down Shut Up," Fox. A complete mess of a show, from the one-dimensional characters to the forced, repetitive premise of nearly every episode. What makes this especially disappointing is that no less than six major players on this show were alums of the brilliant "Arrested Development," including producer Mitch Hurwitz and stars Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Henry Winkler.
2. "The Jay Leno Show," NBC. I can't believe it took an overhyped time slot change to convince most of America what most comedy connisseurs have known since 1992: Jay Leno just isn't that funny.
3. "Secret Girlfriend," Comedy Central. A homage to '80s sex-farce movies, with "you" as the main character. There's precious little artistic license here; a unique twist on the single-camera concept is wasted on frat boys punching each other and gratutious shots of scantly-clad women jigging around.

I conclude my last blog of the decade (and the year, I guess) with a quick reflection at everything that's changed in the past ten years. What stands out most in my mind is the number of technological advances made since then. Think about it: in January 2000, there was no Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube, or Twitter, Huffington Post, or Townhall.com. There was no iPhone, iTunes, or iPod, though iMacs were still the rage. There were no plasma TVs, DVRs, or converter boxes. Three of the most-used search engines in the United States were AskJeeves.com, AltaVista, and Netscape, with Google just barely in the top ten. Blackberry was in its nascent stages, and was little more than an expensive walkie-talkie. Only a select handful of people had ever texted, and you couldn't access your e-mail on your cell phone. The majority of Americans still used a landline to go online. Even TV Tome, the for-us, by-us TV episode guide that evolved into the site we know today as TV.com, wasn't launched until June 2000.

It was a terrible decade in terms of foreign and domestic affairs, and a shrill and bloated ten years in pop culture; however, it was the American political dynamic that changed most signifigantly, and probably not for the better. In 1999 we had two major political parties finding a very delicate semblance of bipartisanship; that was followed by a gung-ho, all-encompassing Republican majority that ignored its opponents as it tried to push through a mountain of high-impact and controversial legislation while losing favor with the American public, which was then succeeded by a Democratic majority that was essentially doing the same thing. The rift between conservatives and liberals has grown exponentially, and the internet has become a new battleground for their partisan bickering. Political discourse has become a multimedia haymaker of illogical conspiracy theories, self-righteousness, and constant reinforcement of the same tired bullet points. On the other hand, ten years ago Gary Condit, Jack Ryan, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich, John Ensign, and Mark Sanford were still by and large upstanding public citizens, so maybe it wasn't all that bad.

What will happen in the next ten years is anyone's guess. I guess that's the thrill of the future; it's a big frontier where anyone can stake a claim. So many elements of our culture hit their nadir in the 2000s, and from this point there's nowhere to go but up. It may not be a clean slate, but there's plenty of room for opportunity. I wish you all a wonderful 2010, and make sure to savor every moment that you can.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2009

Like any two-bit wannabe music critic on the world wide internets, I have chosen to drink the Kool-Aid and post my inevitable "Best Albums of 2009" list. If the music scene of the past 12 months could be summed up in one word, it would be "weird." I'm not saying that to be derogatory, though. As pretty much anything unique, irreverent, and forward-thinking pushed itself further away from the mainstream, Top 40, CHR, and Modern Rock radio became a synthetic cacophany of studio wizardry, sounds that were so polished that they could barely breathe. Lady Gaga, arguably the breakout artist of the year, was as praised for her songcraft as she was ridiculed for her bizarre, Madonna-lite wardrobe and aloof "genius" persona. There was hardly a dull moment in 2009, though only history will tell if it was a great year for music.

1. Bitte Orca, The Dirty Projectors. To describe the sound of this NYC-based art project is nearly as difficult as pigeonholing them into a particular subgenre. This album is a fascinating as it is obtuse, from frontman David Longstreth's abstact lyrics to the repetitive "ay, ay-oh, aaaay-ohhhh" choruses of their three female vocalists. Once you get beyond the idiosyncracies, Bitte Orca pays a debt to '60s baroque-pop and R&B girl groups, as evidenced by tracks like "Two Doves" and "Remade Horizon." It's very bewildering upon listening to it for the first time, but this disc grows on you in repeat plays.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix. Who would've guessed that Saturday Night Live still possessed the ability to be a kingmaker for unknown musical acts? Though I initially reacted to Phoenix's performance of "1901" and "Lisztomania" with mild satisfaction, there was something fresh and distinctive to these songs that I must've missed the first time around. It was new wave revival at its purest, yet they don't sound anything like our American brand of New Order and Cure proteges.
3. Vecktimest, Grizzly Bear. Much like my #1 pick, Grizzly Bear is a New York City-based outfit that pays fleeting homage to the sounds of yesteryear as they look ahead to an uncertain future. There's a recurring theme of love and yearning in this album, 12 bittersweet and earnest tracks enhanced by the band's Beach Boys-esque harmonizing, eerie choral arrangements, and swishy instrumentation. You can feel the weight of their ambition, yet you never get the sense that Vecktimest will collapse at any moment.
4. Actor, St. Vincent
5. Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective
6. Fantasies, Metric
7. Crack The Skye, Mastodon
8. Far, Regina Spektor
9. Humbug, Arctic Monkeys
10. Middle Cyclone, Neko Case. Whether she's solo or with The New Pornographers, Neko Case has proven to be of the most consistent and fascinating artists of the past decade. Her latest disc is no exception, a concept album about natural disasters and the damage it leaves in its path, a theme that becomes a metaphor for love and loss. My only complaint about this disc is the closing track, which is little more than 30+ minutes of crickets chirping; is this supposed to embody the calm after the storm, and if not, is there any point to it?

Honorable Mentions: The Crying Light, Antony and The Johnsons; Embryonic, The Flaming Lips; Backspacer, Pearl Jam; Swoon, Silversun Pickups.

"Percussion Gun," White Rabbits
"A Whole Lot Better," Brandon Benson
"Hang You From The Heavens," The Dead Weather
"Day & Nite," Kid Cudi
"Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," Cage the Elephant
"Dreams," Brandi Carlile
"You and I," Wilco feat. Feist
"Outlaw Pete," Bruce Springsteen
"The Fear," Lily Allen
"Heavy Cross," Gossip

1. "Wrong," Depeche Mode. A stunning, intense thriller of a clip. Just so you know: Dave Gahan and company make a brief cameo about halfway through the film.
3. "Panic Switch," Silversun Pickups.
4. "Make Her Say (I Poke Her Face)," Kid Cudi feat. Kanye West and Common.
5. "Mykonos," Fleet Foxes.

Unlikliest Session Musician: Rather than rest on his laurels, wallow in his millions, and continue to unsuccessfully adopt African orphans, Sir Elton John contributed piano riffs to new releases from Brandi Carlile and Alice In Chains.

2009 was a banner year for awful album titles. If I could whittle it down to the five worst, it would look something like this:
Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, The Dave Matthews Band
Confessions of an Imperfect Angel, Mariah Carey
No More Stories Are Told Today I'm Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories the World Is Grey I'm Tired Let's Wash Away, Mew
Pray IV Reign, Jim Jones
Raditude, Weezer

1. Full Circle, Creed. Apparently inspired by Pearl Jam's recent creative resurgence, Eddie Vedder's unwitting protege Scott Stapp reassembled his old band for their first full-player in eight years. There's a major difference, though; where Pearl Jam is evolving in sound yet maintaining their musical and creative core, Creed plays like they wish 1999 had never ended. In short, it's the same pretentious, vaguely spiritual ipecac that you hated ten years ago.
2. Halestorm, Halestorm. Say what you will about mainstream modern rock, but I think we all agree on the fact that it's one big sausage-fest. Lzzy Hale (not a typo) and her cliched "I hate guys/I'm a complicated woman" rhetoric will do nothing to change that.
3. The E.N.D., The Black Eyed Peas. Three words: "Boom Boom Pow." They've got the formula so down pat, you'd think this CD was assembled in a high school chemistry class.

Next Week: my favorite TV shows of '09, and my final thoughts on the year (and decade) that was.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Meet Me At The Fair

I tend not to discuss local news in this blog, mostly because 90% of my readers aren't from Chicago or the outlying suburbs, but there is something that has been dwelling on my mind:

We Downers Grove residents tend to associate the fourth weekend in June with Heritage Fest. Launched in 1982 to celebrate the town's sesquicentennial, Heritage Fest is a three-day party held on the streets of downtown Downers. To some degree, it's a miniature version of the Taste of Chicago; there's carnival rides, live music, and all sorts of delicious yet nutritionally-challenged cuisine. It's a cherished community event and a profitable one to boot, so I was quite shocked to learn that the village had cancelled Heritage Fest for 2010.

I first heard about the cancellation on Facebook about two weeks ago, thinking that this was some goofy rumor. Early last week, however the decision to skip Heritage Fest for a year --and maybe more-- became a reality. Apparently the village has a $4.5 million budget shortfall, and something had to give. (Yes, the population of DG is just under 49,000, but we're still considered a village for zoning purposes.) For a generation of Downers Grove residents who have expected Heritage Fest every June like a morning sunrise, it's as shocking as it is a sad indictator of the economy. As this article implies, the tourism that Hertiage Fest brought to Downers Grove and the sales tax revenue it generated will be deeply missed. The village council has left the door open to private sponsorship or even a fundraiser, though I'm doubtful that anyone will chip in the amount of money needed to keep the festival going.

In the end, losing Heritage Fest may not necessarily be the end of the world. The success of our festival inspired other towns in the western Chicago suburbs to launch their own hometown fiestas, or if they already had one, to at least up the ante. I guess driving two towns over for elephant ears will make do for a year, though it won't feel the same. Plus, it's not like this was the only event that the village council chose to cancel; our annual ice sculpture contest was benched for 2010, and the National Cycling Championships will also have to find a new home next year. Nevertheless, it's a depressing sign of the times when nobody can afford to have fun. Then again, maybe God is punishing the village for booking Foghat for the 2007 fest.

Next week: the year in music, 2009.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The New Decider

The cover of Time magazine shared my sentiments about President Obama's foriegn policy: it's his war now. After weeks of internal debate, our Commander in Chief ordered 30,000 troops to be deployed to Afghanistan by the end of the month. The surge has been approached with mild criticism from both parties, the primary complaint being the cost of sending so many arms overseas. Perhaps the most devisive aspect as Obama's announcement of the surge, a pragmatic and business-like speech held at West Point last Tuesday. The reviews ranged from "overlong" to "not embarassing," and indeed it was a blunt statement of facts, a far cry from the motivational and vaguely patriotic monologues that we're used to hearing from our 44th president. The respect for reality was apparent, though for many it was a bitter pill to swallow.

Regardless, the war in Afghanistan has been a systematic botch job, but we can't quite pull out or sweep it under the rug until we regain the momentum that we had when the United States first invaded in 2001. President Obama inherited this war and whether we like it or not, he can do whatever he damn well pleases. If the Bush-Gates surge of 2007 could save face in Iraq, could the Obama-Gates surge of 2009 have a similar effect on Afghanistan? Better yet, can we get the job done in 19 months, or is there some element of flexibility? Is Al Qaida really down for the count, as some intelligence reports claim? Those are all excellent questions, but for now the country that will feel the impact most is Afghanistan, not the U.S. This is a crucial message to our enemies that we're not casting a blind eye on their antics, and to the Afghan government to shape up and learn how to defend themselves.

Other notes:

+ Two weeks ago, some rich guy and his trophy wife crashed a state dinner. See? There is a way to explain that news story in one sentence. ;)

+ Tiger Woods had a fender bender. See? I just did the same thing twice. ;)

+ What a difference a month makes. After lamenting the state of my fantasy football team in WU #228, I'm now riding a five-game winning streak. As I write this, I'm in third place out of six, though I'm still next-to-last in total points. I guess my small-ball approach is working.

+ To anyone that might be in the Chicago area later this month, my Improv Level C class at Second City will be doing a half-hour show at the SC Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells on December 20th. We'll be performing from 12:30 to 1p; admission is two dollars. For those who can't make it, wish me luck!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

For Your Consideration

Nothing quite piques my curiousity during the baseball off-season like the announcement of the latest Hall of Fame ballot. The latest roster, released last week, is no less intriguing than any other year. Of the 26 names listed, 15 are on the ballot for the first time; all of these newcomers retired during or after the 2004 season, as you have to be out of the majors five full years to be eligible. Obviously, a lot of these fresh faces are filler and probably won't be considered for next year's vote. (I dare you to justify the Hall of Fame qualities of David Segui and Shane Reynolds.) From a talent standpoint, it's a more threadbare ballot than some of us are accustomed to. The rampant steroid usage of the late '90s and early '00s enabled aging stars to add about five years to their careers, resulting in a dearth of sure-fire inductees calling it quits midway through this decade, if not for several years to come. In the eyes of the most jaded and cynical baseball fans it may seem like a throughly unappetizing ballot, but there are three names that I wish would be put into serious consideration: longtime bridesmaids Bert Blyleven and Lee Smith and newcomer Barry Larkin.

Let's start with the Flying Dutchman. Granted, his career win-loss record is 287-250, and usually 300 wins is guaranteed admission. People tend to forget that Bert spent three years on a Pittsburgh team that scored in bunches in the late innings of the game, resulting in a unwieldy number of no-decisions, including a staggering 20 in 1979. That .534 career winning percentage may not look impressive, but it's better than Hall of Famers like Eppa Rixey (266-251 lifetime), Teddy Lyons (260-230), and even Nolan Ryan (324-292). Of course, wins don't tell half the story; Blyleven is 5th on the all-time strikeout list and only eight men have more career shutouts. Plus, he might've had the sweetest curveball anybody's ever seen; I'm sure there's clips on YouTube or Metacafe that'll prove my point.

No statistic has revolutionized the worth of a pitcher in the past half-century quite like the save, which makes the constant snubbing of Lee Smith a mystery of sorts. Smitty's 478 plugs were the standard until about three years ago, and the man who surpassed him (Trevor Hoffmann) looks like a borderline lock for the Hall. Bruce Sutter only had seven or eight dominant seasons out of the bullpen, yet he was inducted in 2006. Smith had arguably ten great years as a closer, finishing with 35 or more saves six times. Having a career 3.03 ERA doesn't hurt, either.

As for Larkin, he's not a first-ball Hall of Famer though I'm sure the sportswriters will come around to this guy sooner than later. A 12-time All-Star and 7-time Silver Slugger, "Lark" might've been the quintessential National League shortshop of the 1990s. Nobody would mistake him for a power hitter, though he squeezed out doubles like nobody's business and his career .371 on-base percentage was nothing to scoff at. His one weakness was durability; in 19 seasons in the majors he played at least 120 games just 10 times. Nevertheless, he was a team leader who willed the Reds to two division titles and one championship in the early-to-mid '90s, and having to toil under an owner like Marge Schott has to be worth something.

So what about everybody else? As a Royals fan, I grew up admiring Kevin Appier; he should be on Kansas City's wall of honor but his career stats won't bat any eyelashes in Cooperstown. My support for Mark McGwire has waned over the years, and his new gig as the Cardinals' hitting coach feels like a last-ditch attempt at public atonement. Andre Dawson's career on-base percentage is laughable, Alan Trammell was a sac-fly artist with an above-average glove, and Dale Murphy was little more than a power-hitting milquetoast. Freshman like Roberto Alomar, Edgar Martinez, and Fred McGriff will linger on the ballot for years, too divisive to get the necessary 75% to be inducted but too above-average to be ignored altogether. Maybe --and I mean maybe-- Don Mattingly will get the call from the Veterans Committee, but I'm totally impartial. If you're looking for marquee names, wait until 2011; after all, who's gonna get in the way of Jeff Bagwell?