30 December 2010

Pop Culture Roundup for 2010

Teenage Dreamboat Darren Criss
Okay, he’s not really a teen. But who’s counting?

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I’ve been able to catch up on culture — the kind that everybody else is enjoying, in this, my own era. And so, while I haven’t been able to watch certain American TV shows in real time, or even DVR, and I couldn’t possibly keep up at the water cooler, I don’t feel entirely left out anymore. And while I haven’t actually purchased a single pop album this year, I have (brace yourself) down­loaded a couple from iTunes. No, seriously. I have.

I’m not in a position to post Top 10 Lists or the sorts of year-end acco­lades that are the purview of other publications, but I’m pleased to offer a few reactions to the pop culture of our time.

Regina Spektor actually knows how to play this instrument.
No, seriously. She does.

Intrigued by Regina Spektor’s song “Us,” which I first heard in last year’s rom-com hit, (500) Days of Summer, I went to iTunes and picked up two albums by the artist in question. She turns out to be Russian by birth, Brooklynese by education, and a very great talent. Her Classical piano studies in particular afford her a compositional range that other pop stars — even the similarly trained Mika — can’t even begin to grasp. We’re ’way beyond three-chord progressions here. It’s not merely that no two songs sound alike; there are variations within songs. And her lyrics are witty, wise, and gratifyingly complex. I’ve listened repeatedly to Begin to Hope and Soviet Kitsch, without once growing bored.

She makes me think of that high-school oddball, moody, always sitting by herself in the cafeteria, laughing at strange, unfunny words, writing poetry, leaving school early for piano lessons. And then one day — the senior talent show, perhaps — she walks onstage and blows everybody away. She’s still odd: nobody who indulges so often in those glottal stops and yelps (designed, I think, to add spice and vinegar to her essentially sweet instrument) is ever going to be normal, man. And yet you hear her speaking directly to you. All the time she was keeping to herself, you realize, she was watching you.

The next thing you realize is that she’s gorgeous.
When did that happen?

My particular favorite songs are “Samson,” “That Time,” “On the Radio,” “Uh-merica,” and of course “Us.” But really, just trying to pick a handful of favorites, I think of even more I wouldn’t want to do without: “Fidelity,” “Après moi,” “Music Box,” almost every title. Spektor’s music is consistently rewarding, and I look forward to hearing more from her.


The big news around the water cooler, I suspect, would be Glee — if indeed there are any water coolers anymore. This is not only be­cause the show is topical (best exemplified in the bullying story line), or because of the special guest stars (Carol Burnett! Gwyneth Paltrow — singing! Meat Loaf — not singing!), but because the show is so infu­ri­at­ing­ly inconsistent. Characters don’t behave the same from one scene to the next; plots and motivations are forgotten for weeks on end; abrupt changes in tone seem to serve no purpose than to cue another song. Glee simply refuses to be the show I want it to be.

And yet it remains great fun, and like almost everybody else, I’m finding the Kurt story line just about irresistible. It doesn’t hurt that Chris Colfer’s voice is imbued with angelic purity and eerie emotional power, or that he’s a terrific actor even when Kurt has nothing to say. (Watch his eyes during “Teenage Dream,” glimpsed in the picture above. So much going on there!) It also doesn’t hurt that his friend-slash-potential-love-interest is played by the best-looking, most charming, most straight-but-gay-friendly actor to come down the pike since James Franco. Ever superlative as Blaine, Darren Criss made the most stun­ning small-screen debut in memory, a swift-moving, explosive spotlight that made him an instant star.

Meanwhile, a thuddingly banal pop song took on exciting new mean­ings — something Glee at its best does rather well.

The producers have played coy with us, keeping the boys apart. I mean, come on: there’s no way that their “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” duet (above) wouldn’t end in an incredibly passionate kiss!

That said, I am prepared to go on the record, quoting Pretty in Pink’s Duckie as I remind you that Blaine “is a major appliance, not a name,” and predicting that the inevitable love affair between these two will not end happily. (Unless of course Glee ends its run prematurely, as Ugly Betty did, and the boys are preserved in happily-ever-amber, as Justin and Austin were.) Don’t even try to tell me John Hughes movies exert no influence on Glee.

The show’s other pleasures are primarily a matter of good casting and (sometimes) apt song choices. Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester and Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry remain two of the most ingeniously comic char­ac­ter creations on television, and Jayma Mayes’ Emma is hys­ter­i­cal­ly funny, too, when she gets the chance. Dianna Agron (Quinn) and Naya Rivera (Santana) are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and yet, by golly, they can sing and act, too. Among the men in the cast, I’m most impressed by Kevin McHale as Artie, by turns heartbreaking and ob­nox­ious, in a refreshing divergence from the well-worn After-School Special tropes.

So — yeah — I put up with Glee, waiting for the moments when it lives up to its potential.

Some day, lad, all this will be yours!

Other Shows
My taste for Reality TV is limited in the extreme — even though friends did manage to sucker me into watching the finale of Project Runway. (When valiant Mondo lost to duplicitous, less-talented Gretchen, I was duly outraged, it’s true, despite the fact that I know nothing of fashion and care less for the show.) As the historical ascendancy of Reality continues, I’m surprised to discover that several genuinely worthy scrip­ted shows are flourishing. Thus far, I’ve gravitated toward comedies.

It had been clear to me already that, one of these days, I would need to go back and watch 30 Rock from the beginning. Tina Fey’s micro­cos­mic view of network television and contemporary Manhattan is simply too smart, too funny, and too well-acted to be consumed in occa­sion­al small doses. But it’s fun to watch new episodes, more or less as they’re broadcast, and my admiration is thriving.

Even so, I’m constantly puzzled: how is it possible that The CBS Evening News so little resembles The Girlie Show, and yet I recognize every character and element? The principal mystery is whether the Bill Madison counterpart is Liz Lemon or Kenneth the Page.

Modern Family (above) seems likewise destined to wait until I can devote closer study to it, starting at the beginning and working my way forward. The Office seems almost insurmountable, since I feel obliged to start with the BBC original, then work my way through the NBC spinoff: as of now, relationships and references go over my head.

Vying for the title of Guiltiest TV Pleasure of 2010 is Cougar Town, which I glanced at only because Ryan Devlin, who works with my friend Michelle Grant, was scheduled to appear in a few episodes. To my surprise, I enjoyed the show and have stuck with it. Although Cougar Town is saddled with the world’s worst title (and they know it, they know it) and concerns a group of characters I would never, ever want to hang out with, the dialogue is so fresh and characterful that I’m happy to listen to the appealing cast sit around and talk about nothing. (Which is what they typically do, in most episodes.)

New to me and most impressive are the actresses Busy Philipps (as sexy Laurie) and Christa Miller (as acerbic Ellie). Freaking me out is the concept that Courteney Cox can possibly be middle-aged. Wasn’t it just a few minutes ago that we were dancing in the dark? Can’t we still be Friends?

Former young person Cox (left) with Philipps and Miller

Yes, I still need to catch up on Community and longer, more serious pro­grams, as well as shows that are long since finished: Xena: War­rior Princess and Heroes, Brothers and Sisters and heaven knows what else. But any goal is within my reach, now that I know the secret to success — yea, not merely success but global domination.

Just look ’em in the eye and say,
“I’m Chuck Bass!”

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