Thursday, December 18, 2014

Season 5 of The Sing-Off: Blink and you missed it

Melodrones from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN became the first collegiate winner of The Sing-Off.

Last night (Wednesday, December 17, 2014), we were treated to a two-hour spectacular Season Opener / Series run / Finale of The Sing-Off, a group a cappella singing competition show. It was Season 5, all compressed into a teeny tiny compact little two-hour time slot on primetime television on NBC.

Six well-chosen extraordinary groups heralding colorful matching uniforms performed amazing vocal acrobatics as they competed for a $50,000 Sony Music Recording Contract.

I felt as if I had been flicking channels and stumbled upon the yearly NCAA Cheerleading competition, coming in at the end and having no clue what had already transpired in order for these particular groups to arrive at the finals. I had no idea who they were. I wasn't given the luxury of getting to know the teams over the course of the season, not even a short one.  I felt as if I had been cheated, as if I'd walked in at the end of an amazing movie, and hoping to find it on Netflix so that I could rewatch it from the beginning, sadly realized that it was not available. I wanted to get to know the team stars and hear their heart wrenching stories of trials and tribulation; find out how they formed their groups and trained for countless exhaustive hours; and watch as they grew as artists over the course of the season in response to the judges' constructive criticisms.

I missed host Nick Lachey's dorky banter with the judges, who each had little time to say much of anything. Though Jewel and Dr. Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men returned, Ben Folds was off on tour somewhere and had to be replaced by Fall Out Boy's lead singer Patrick Stump. Poor Stump didn't even get his photo featured on the NBC website and is shown as a sad looking gray silhouette avatar:

I missed Ben Folds. I missed his dictionary-cracking vocabulary and insightful and intellectually complicated redneck-geek-charm-filled critiques.

Dr. Folds should be happy to hear that he finally got a win for a collegiate a cappella group. He's been rooting for this since Season 1 in 2009 when he helped launch the show with Deke Sharon, Mark Burnett, and Dr. Stockman after recording a college a cappella album. The black and gold Melodores of Vanderbilt University, formed right there in Dr. Folds own back yard of Nashville, Tennessee in 2009 (the same year the Sing-Off debuted), pulled out a win, beating out five exemplary groups.  I would not be at all surprised to see Folds work with the Melodores in the studio or on tour. 

My fear that the show would sink into the over-commercialized world of electronic dance music and auto-tuned vocal bands was dissuaded when the majority of the competing groups happily rejected the use of aids and stuck to the purist form of a cappella: meaning "in the manner of the church," without musical accompaniment.  Only one group, a.squared, took advantage of the newer relaxed restrictions and used a loop machine with a dedicated operator to create a musical backdrop.  In the end, it was all for naught, for they did not advance to the finals. In my opinion, the Sing-Off should return to the previous strict requirements. There's no need to muddy the playing field. 

I hope that like college cheerleading, a cappella competition returns to television next year in some format, perhaps aired on one of NBC's lesser sister networks over the summer, or even under a different name and with a new producer and record company sponsor. The Sing-Off may have lived out its life. However, a cappella will never die.

Show Recap

Jodi Walker wrote a nice recap of the season opener/finale/special for Entertainment Weekly, a la TVgrrrrl style, listing each act and the songs they performed. 

Season 5 Competitors

New Haven, CT
5 member male group, formed from Yale University students, using an electronic loop machine.

The Exchange
Myrtle Beach, SC
5 member male group, formed from various members of other teams who met on the Sing-Off show while competing.

Nashville, TN
14 member male collegiate singing group formed at Vanderbilt University

San Francisco, CA
6 member diverse group, formed to compete on the show.

Timothy's Gift
Nashville, TN
6 member female group, formed as a Christian faith based ministry to perform in prisons.

New York, NY
5 member female group, performing jazz and soul music.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Selfie is fun! It's fresh! It's new! It's exciting!.. It's cancelled :'-(

Henry Higgs (John Cho) and Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan) take a selfie on Selfie.

One day while flipping through channels looking for something new and fresh, I stumbled upon the pilot of "Selfie," a half hour show debuting on Tuesday, September 30, 2014 on ABC. I managed to watch a few episodes here and there over the fall season as it grew on me. 

"Well, this is a hit!" I thought to myself, "It's the new Ugly Betty, but a little different."

We have the chattily charming, knows-all-the-good-gossip receptionist Charmonique (Da'Vine Joy Randolph); the extremely popular fashion forward Eliza (Karen Gillan); and instead of an "ugly Betty," we have an "ugly Henry" (John Cho) who Eliza is determined to crack free from his stoney socially awkward shell. Set in Los Angeles, Eliza and Henry work for KinderKare Pharmaceuticals under chairman Sam Saperstein (David Harewood). Eliza is a top salesperson and Henry is a marketing executive. 

The show encompasses all of the fun elements of a meaningless shallow self-contained sitcom, something of an endangered species these days in the sea of reality shows and soap operatic-like nighttime dramas. Actors parade about in a runway of fashions amidst sophisticated sets. There are plenty of references to the current affairs of the celebrity world, as well as heavy usage of real social media as characters take their own cell phone "selfies." Plots revolve around the ordinary everyday affairs most of us face in our own dreary less colorful lives, such as: the fear of speaking in public, getting shamed on social media, wanting to be promoted at work, being bold enough to ask a woman out on a date, and being smart enough to know when your boyfriend just wants you for your body. We haven't seen such fun television entertainment since Alicia Silverstone strolled on screen in "Clueless."

Interesting casting

The icing on the television cake is the excellent acting. The clever casting by Tim Payne and Lisa Ystrom of serious actors who can cross over from drama into comedy is what has created the magical chemistry that truly makes this show work. Though plots contains very light content, the show does not insult the viewer's intelligence.

To name a few: 

Karen Gillan, who previously starred as Amy Pond from 2010 to 2012 on Doctor Who, is entirely convincing as a beautifully shallow and ultra-critical social guru.

John Cho, who we've also seen recently as police officer Andy Brooks in FOX's Sleepy Hollow, plays the sadly serious straight man Henry Higgs who is in dire need of loosening up.

David Harewood, known for his role of David Estes in Homeland, is simply fun in his portrayal of the eccentric and open-minded company boss Sam Saperstein. 

Charmonique (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) gets dressed for her high school reunion with the help of Eliza (Karen Gillan). 

Da'Vine Joy Randolph is far too realistic (in a good way) as the tough-as-nails receptionist Charmonique. Randolph, unlike the others, has been pulled in from the live acting world of Broadway. She was nominated in 2012 for a Tony award for her role as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost the Musical. 

Actor Samm Levine from Freaks and Geeks plays Sam's son-in-law Terrance.

Brian Huskey, who's appeared as "that guy" in nearly everything from the serious House to the parody Children's Hospital, plays Larry, a smart business colleague.

Matty Cardarople, who I did not think I had ever seen in film before, but will now keep my eye on, is the awkward subdued assistant, Charlie. In real life, Matty is looking for a new job now that the show has been cancelled and has published an audition clip reel on twitter where he reveals himself to be the Skittles cloud petter. Ah ha! I have seen him before: Matty's reel

Selfie's premise was marketed as a modern day "My Fair Lady," with lead characters Eliza Dooley named for Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgs for Doolittle's teacher and mentor Henry Higgins. However, the show is less about the cultivation of a socially proper young lady and more about the sexual tensions between the two leads: Eliza and Henry. Other than the pilot episode, it's really more along the lines of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" as Henry attempts to teach Eliza how to care less about herself and more about others. Eliza sees him as her only true friend, and begins to fall in love, one sweet episode at a time. 

For some reason, the show was cancelled by ABC, though due to an organized fan protest, the rest of the first season will continue to air on the paid service Hulu. I hope it continues for another season or two. It's just the kind of fun and nearly meaningless clean fluff we need to relieve viewers from a difficult serious day at the office. 

Is there hope for a Selfie season 2? We shall see. If so, it will most likely appear on another network. If not, I wish all the fine actors and crew the best of luck. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sing-Off Season 5 to air Wednesday, December 17, 2014

There is no need to stay home from black Friday shopping to watch Season 5 of the Sing-Off during the NBC winter-season break this Thanksgiving holiday. The formerly all A Capella, now instrument backed vocal competition show will not debut until Wednesday, December 17th at 9 p.m. for what is being celebrated as "A Special Holiday Event."

I am looking forward to the new format with morbid curiosity. How will strict A Cappella groups fare against vocal groups using backing instruments? How do you judge apples to apple pie? Although I love Sing-Off Season 3 winner Pentatonix as a strict A Capella group, I am much more impressed with their collaboration with expert fiddler Lindsey Stirling on an extraordinary cover of Imagine Dragons' Radioactive. In this rendition, Pentatonix' beat boxer Kevin Olusola (KO) also pulled out all the stops to accompany the group on cello:  


The judges will have a challenging time discerning the quality vocal groups from those groups who perhaps have less vocal talent, but are musical geniuses in supplementing their lack of vocal prowess with a difficult-to-emulate horn section or harpsichord. 

I am happy to report that both Dr. Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men (Now using a PhD by his name on twitter, Stockman received an honorary doctor of humane letters from Drexel University in 1996) and Jewel are returning as judges on the Sing-Off. Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees is also returning as host. 

Former judge Ben Folds is passing this year, he says due to scheduling conflicts as he took his concerto tour to the southern hemisphere, too far to hop on a jet plane to bounce back and forth for the show's tapings. However, it is no secret that he is an A Cappella purist and I'm sure the show's format change to allow the addition of instrumentation must have ruffled his feathers. 

Replacing Folds is Patrick Stump, lead vocalist, guitarist, pianist and composer for the popular pop punk alternative band, Fall Out Boy. Stump is currently an advisor for The Voice, joining "Team Adam" just this Monday to advise contestants on correct vocal styling. Known for his quality two-octave baritone tenor vocal range, he will bring an interesting and fresh set of opinions to the judges' box. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sing-Off Season 5 – No longer A Cappella

Dr. Shawn Stockman's instagram post announcing the Sing-Off auditions for Season 5.

It was a rumor which started as a simple instagram post on Tuesday September 9, 2014, shared by Co-Judge Shawn Stockman on twitter. It's a simple photo announcing that the Sing-Off vocal group show will be returning to NBC for a 5th Season and there would be auditions beginning at the end of this month:
Los Angeles – Tuesday September 30, 2014
Nashville  – Thursday October 2, 2014
New York – Saturday October 4, 2014

Judging by the response on twitter and instagram, the fans and potential contestants are indeed excited and thrilled to be a part of a 5th Season.

After much anticipation, details were released on the official Sing-Off casting page.

The big news is that the Sing-Off, which debuted in 2009, is no longer an A Cappella show, which restricted performers to emulate all sounds of instruments, including bass and percussion, using only their voices combined with occasional hand claps and snaps. For the first time, instruments and backing tracks will be allowed into the audition portion of the competition. Apparently, the Sing-Off has been transitioned to become a vocal group show, instead of an A Cappella show.

Competitors should prepare three songs, with two of the songs being popular pop or rock songs performed in any style the group wishes, from big band to blues, gospel to rock, alternative to jazz, and so on. Each song cannot be longer than three minutes. Groups must consist of at least 4 members, with the maximum set at 20 members this year.

If accepted, groups must be available to compete in Los Angeles from mid November to December. 

Shawn Stockman will return as one of the judges. It is unclear who else will be returning to the show. As more details are announced, I will add them here in my blog. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Simpsons Marathon on FXX starts tomorrow

A couch scene opens every episode. This one is from a Treehouse of Horror Halloween Special, my personal favorites.  

Just in case you've missed the announcements, FXX network will be airing the complete 552 episodes of The Simpsons in chronological order beginning at 10 a.m. on Thursday morning, August 21, 2014. The marathon will run through midnight on Labor Day, Monday September 1st.

FXX is a cable channel owned by the Fox Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, who owns Fox Broadcasting network, the owner of the Simpsons franchise. Though both are part of the same network family, FXX paid a record 1 billion dollars in November of 2013 for the rights to show reruns on cable, bidding out TBS and Adult Swim. In fact, tomorrow will be The Simpson's first ever airing on cable.

Though there are only 552 episodes totaling 11.5 days of air time at a half hour each, the 2007 feature film, The Simpsons Movie will add an extra two hours of viewing time. The movie will air at 6 p.m. Friday August 29, right after Season 18's final episode, "You Kent Aways Say What You Want." Interviews and bits of trivia will also be interspersed in short breaks during the marathon.

The Simpsons began as a short animated feature shown on Tracy Ullman's variety show in April 1987, then got it's own half hour time slot beginning with a Christmas special airing on December 17, 1989 titled, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire." Twenty five seasons later, the show is still going strong.

I am particularly interested in seeing reruns of the annual Halloween holiday specials, titled "Treehouse of Horror." The first one debuted during season 2 in October 1990 and contains a memorable dramatic reading by Lisa of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven."

The Simpsons are time capsules of pop culture, known for their parodies of famous works of literature and movies, as well as their political satires. Watching the old shows in order will be a bit like reliving the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s as we are reminded of important events from the day. Though many cities claim to be the setting of the show, creator Matt Groening says the city of Springfield is a composite of several cities. Though he won't reveal the true locations, these are most likely all located within Washington State and Oregon where Groening spent all of his early life. Occasionally, a specific landmark or news event can be pinned on a place, such as the one-mile monorail to nowhere in Seattle featured in S4E12 "Marge vs. the Monorail," and the nuclear power plant found outside Portland Oregon, close to where Groening himself grew up.

If you'd like to follow along, here is a useful episode guide published by Wikipedia:
Simpson's Episode Guide

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Life and Times of Norman Bates: Bates Motel

Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) purchase a hotel to run in "Bates Motel."

One of my favorite new TV shows that premiered this past year is Bates Motel. You won't find it on any of the four major networks. It's tucked away, hidden on A&E along with the unlikely pairings of a plethora of reality shows, such as "Duck Dynasty," "Storage Wars," and "Hoarders." 

While watching a marathon of reruns today on A&E, I thought about how remarkably well the show has been put together and how happy I am that it is continuing into a second season, which will premiere tomorrow, Monday, March 3 at 9:00 p.m. 

When rumors circulated that a Psycho movie spin-off had been produced for television, I felt a cringe. I wondered: How on earth will the show play out? How can you take a masterpiece, such as Alfred Hitchock's bone chilling, black and white 1960 film Psycho, and turn it into a television series with enough interest and plot potential to keep audiences enthralled for at least three years, the ideal minimum television show life span? Fortunately, the daring new series on A&E is a huge success.

The secret in this case is to stack your deck with talent. The acting is top notch and completely believable. The writing is well constructed. But perhaps the real star of the show is the ambience created through the combination of well chosen blue collar costumes; rustic period sets placed in the drizzly Pacific Northwest in British Columbia, Canada; excellent sound, lighting and backing music tracks; and most importantly, quality direction. There are moments when the viewer forgets that this is a one-hour television show on a non-premium cable network channel, and not the work of highly paid Hollywood movie directors and cinematographers working on a multi-million dollar movie.

There's one particular scene in Season 1, Episode 3, where the camera finds the very disturbed teenage Norman lying on his bed, his eyes wide open, the sun passing quickly from day into night, indicating that he has laid there in a catatonic state for several hours. Norman begins to hallucinate that his mother is lecturing him, something we discover occurs frequently.
MOM:  You were right. As long as Shelby has that belt, he can control us. He can make us do things, things we don't want to do. Just like your father did.
NORMAN:  We can't let that happen. Not again.
MOM:  This is all your fault.
NORMAN:  I know mother. There's something wrong with me.
MOM:  You know what you have to do, don't you?
NORMAN:  I have to get that belt.
The context of Bates Motel, the television show, is a well thought out predecessor to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 movie, Psycho. which was based on the 1959 thriller novel by Robert Bloch. The Bates Motel writers have taken a lot of creative license, imagining how the good-looking intelligent young Norman Bates (played by Freddie Highmore) might have gotten himself into such a predicament where he ends up living in a decrepit hotel on a forgotten old highway with his domineering and unnaturally obsessive, controlling mother Norma (Vera Farmiga). Many questions are answered in the first season. 

We learn that Norman's father, Sam, died tragically after Norman and his mother killed him after he attacked her. However, Norma staged the death to appear as an accident, collected the life insurance money, and moved her 17-year old son with her from Arizona to the tiny town of White Pine Bay, Oregon. She buys an old 12-room motel on highway 88, puts up a Bates Motel sign, and begins renovations in preparation to open. However, trouble is on the horizon: the city is planning to build a bypass to highway 88 which will greatly diminish traffic, potentially putting her new fledgling company out of business.

Norma's son, Dylan Massett (Max Thierlot), from a different father, moves in during episode 2 and finds a job with an illegal marijuana growing business, apparently the small town's primary economic base.   

Death surrounds Norman, as characters are killed off faster than those on the "Walking Dead." He becomes obsessed with the macabre, learning taxidermy from the father (Ian Hart) of Emma DeCody (Olivia Cooke), a young and beautiful terminally ill classmate with cystic fibrosis.

We witness first hand the early signs of schizophrenia, watching as a seemingly normal fine-looking young man begins to lose his grasp on reality. We learn that his mother Norma is also not quite stable, yet hides her mental illness quite well through lying and taking advantage of her beautiful looks to manipulate well-meaning powerful men. We find that no one is perfect, that there are flaws in everyone, that corruption runs rampant and pure innocence does not truly exist.

There hasn't been such a dark and twisted intelligent plot featured on television since Twin Peaks.

Bates Motel Website

Just for a chuckle, check out the cleverly assembled Bates Motel website, complete with a cartoon map of the town of White Pine Bay, Oregon where the television show is based. On it you will discover childhood family photos of young Norman and a gift shop featuring collectibles from the show.

Though there is no White Pine Bay and no Highway 88 (or even State Route 88) in the state of Oregon, the series setting seems to be loosely based on the small town of Coos Bay off Highway 101 on the coast of Oregon. The original Bates Motel in Bloch's novel was based on the small town of Fairvale, California. There is a State Route 88 which runs from Stockton, CA near Sacramento to the state of Nevada.