This year’s pilot pickup announcements haven’t added many surprising new names to the mix of folks who peddle a new show every year. But this is interesting news: Dana Gould has Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl signed on as an executive producer for a comedy for FX starring Gould as the frontman for a dysfunctional band “on the verge of mega-stardom“. For those unfamiliar with him, Gould is a longtime standup and Simpsons writer who Patton Oswalt credits as “the founder of alternative comedy”. Grohl has been in music all his life, playing in the DC punk scene before becoming the drummer of Nirvana. If picked up, it sounds like a perfect addition to FX’s impeccable comedy slate, including Louie, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Archer.
The ongoing second season of The Walking Dead is unquestionably better than the first, if a little unambitious. One of the biggest mysteries in recent TV history is why AMC canned the big name behind their biggest hit ever and what exactly he wanted to do that rubbed them the wrong way. A recent email exchange between Ain’t It Cool News and Frank Darabont himself may shed a little light on that, as he laid out his plans for a sweeping season opener with almost no participation from the already huge ensemble cast. It’s a pretty great idea, but it sounds really expensive, and it’s pretty obvious that executives already jittery about their big hit being off the air for nearly a year would want to hop right back in with the characters the audience already identifies with.
Tim Burton is probably the only household name director in America besides Steven Spielberg, and is at the height of his commercial powers after making two of the biggest blockbusters of all time with his spins on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland. He’s also light years away from the exciting, iconoclastic genius who turned out classic after classic in the late 80′s and early 90′s like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. As soon as he got the clout to make whatever he wanted, Burton turned his attention almost exclusively to phoning in his uninspired riffing on his favorite stories, from Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman to Planet of the Apes. Whenever he breaks out of the box — as with the uncompromising musical Sweeney Todd or the lovely Southern fairy tale Big Fish — he reminds us why we fell in love with him in the first place. Sadly, he’s continuing his and our time with his next project:
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Burton wants to make a retelling of PINOCCHIO with Warner Brothers (not at Disney, interestingly enough), and Robert Downey Jr. would play Gepetto, the lovable inventor who wants a son so badly that he makes a puppet that comes to life. This new tale would be from the perspective of Gepetto and his adventures trying to find his lost wooden marionette.
Expect lots of cartoonish goth imagery and Danny Elfman-scored “la la la”-ing. Yawn.
Those of us who shelled out to see The Dark Knight Rises prologue before IMAX screenings of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol this weekend pretty much all had the same thought: Bane’s actually pretty awesome, but I can’t understand a damn thing he’s saying. Apparently, Warner Bros. is concerned as well:
Sources also say some at Warners would like Nolan to change the sound mix, but the filmmaker, whose autonomy is well-earned (his Inception earned the studio more than $800 million and eight Oscar nominations), has informed executives that he plans only to alter the sound slightly, not to rework it completely.
“Chris wants the audience to catch up and participate rather than push everything at them. He doesn’t dumb things down,” says one high-level exec, declining to be named. “You’ve got to pedal faster to keep up.”
Might I, but a humble writer, suggest a simple compromise? Subtitles.
Fast Five was one of 2011′s biggest surprises for action aficionados, a film so gloriously bonkers that anyone who came of age in the late 80′s/early 90′s couldn’t help but fall for its overblown charms. That insanity will extend to the very structure of the next segment, as producer/star/Paul Walker lust object Vin Diesel informed the Hollywood Reporter that Fast Six will be two different movies.
With the success of this last one, and the inclusion of so many characters, and the broadening of scope, when we were sitting down to figure out what would fit into the real estate of number six, we didn’t have enough space…
We have to pay off this story, we have to service all of these character relationships, and when we started mapping all that out it just went beyond 110 pages,” Diesel explained. “The studio said, ‘You can’t fit all that story in one damn movie!’
The Tree of Life
2011 has turned out to be one hell of a movie year. Though it’s tougher and tougher for filmmakers to get financing for anything worth a damn and the slog to get to the good stuff as an audience member can seem endless and dispiriting at times, I was surprised to look over my notes from the past year and find that there were 15 movies I’ve seen so far that I really, really liked (late entrants like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Young Adult and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy have eluded me thus far). There were real surprises, like an acid trip kid’s movie (Rango), an engrossing meditation about pioneer life (Meek’s Cutoff), and TWO high-profile salutes to silent movies (Hugo and The Artist). But for me, the best film of the year is an absolute no-brainer. The Tree of Life isn’t just 2011′s best film, it’s one of the best films ever made. It’s a once in a lifetime event, a masterpiece that ties the lives of normal people to the vastness of the universe itself, guided by the confident hand and visionary mind of Terrence Malick. It’s also an anomaly in an industry where personal stories and spectacle almost never mix. Filmgoers have been conditioned to think that an intimate film has to be small and modest, and that a filmmaker who can use the tools of cinema to their full potential is “all style and no substance”. The Tree of Life focuses in on something as tiny as a newborn baby’s foot and as grand as Pangaea splitting apart, and does so with a shorter runtime than the new Transformers movie. The prevailing criticism of its ambition and scope shows just how little we want or expect from movies today. Do we really want a serious film world dominated by sleepy bedroom dramas? The Tree of Life swings for the fences and gave me one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had in a theater.
If this was any other year, Abbas Kiarostami’s amazing Certified Copy would be at the top of my list. It’s a stunningly-composed puzzle box of a movie that dodges every easy turn and features a career-best performance by the great Juliette Binoche. Those who yearn for the glory days of the 70′s need look no further than the hypnotic Moneyball, the kind of brainy man’s man movie that Paul Newman specialized in circa 1975 (starring his closest living surrogate, Brad Pitt). Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins surely belongs in the top tier of a filmography that probably numbers into the thousands now, with a first half that superbly evokes the dark side of feudal Japan and a second half in which he slashes and burns it to the ground in brutal and spectacularly-choreographed fashion. Hanna‘s fearless and unapologetic genre-bending inevitably results in an uneven final product, but for long stretches it’s one of the most exciting, original and visually innovative studio films in years. Despite its flaws (why are we seeing Cyclop’s obscure kid brother but not Cyclops himself?), X-Men: First Class is one of the best and most emotionally affecting superhero movies ever made, with Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy acting the crap out of comic book material like it was Richard III. And no movie tugged at my heartstrings like 50/50, a sweet story about finding human connections in the darkest times.
The Skin I Live In
As the credits rolled on Pedro Almodovar’s latest mindbender, I found myself pinned to my chair by a sort of emotional whiplash. As much as I had learned about the movie, nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle that had just unfolded. As a Pedro devotee of many years, I go to his movies expecting to be surprised — but I can’t think of another director whose output has been so consistently risky, while still repeating motifs as to create a rich, deep body of work that doesn’t get stale. The Skin I Live In also saw the welcome return of Antonio Banderas to a project where he is actually acting, neither serving as an eye-candy fixation (as in Almodovar’s earliest) nor as some kind of cartoon action star with a shabby all-purpose accent. The creepy effectiveness of his Dr. Ledgard is not in the stillness of a stoic, but that sense of withheld passion and fear that could break forth at any moment. And don’t forget Elena Anaya and Jan Cornet as Vera and Vicente (those who’ve seen the movie will understand why I have paired them here). I happen to think 2011 was a very good year for movies, but none of them disturbed me like this one.
Best documentary: Gnarr, about an Icelandic comedian whose stunt campaign for mayor of Reykjavik becomes a serious pursuit. Best performance I’ll never be able to forget: Michael Fassbender, Shame. Best ensemble cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause, The Descendants. Best adaptation: Ralph Fiennes (dir. and star)’s Coriolanus. Best supporting actors we should have seen more of: Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Ides of March. Surprisingly good blockbuster of the year: X-Men: First Class. Biggest disappointment of the year: The Muppets. Best performance by an article of clothing: The scorpion jacket Ryan Gosling wears in Drive. Most annoying accent: Viggo Mortensen as Dr. Freud in A Dangerous Method.
You don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate the story of Billy Beane and his game-changing approach to the sport with the 2002 Oakland Athletics. All you have to understand is the basic human desire to succeed against all odds and the necessity to sometimes step well outside of your comfort zone in order to do it. It’s not that baseball isn’t important, but it’s largely used as the backdrop for the emotional and political struggles that Beane and his players go through in order to prove that they might actually be onto something. It’s a story of falling to the lowest of lows and reaching the highest of highs and keeping your humility and integrity intact along the way. The fact that Brad Pitt (an undeniable presence in movies this year, it seems) turns in a finely tuned, reserved performance as the perpetually tainted Beane shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s also great to see Jonah Hill and Chris Pratt (better known for their comedic work) step it up and keep us invested in the team around him. And much like his home run with last year’s The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin’s adaption of Moneyball finds a perfect balance between the literal “inside baseball” and the larger workings of a major league franchise while also serving up far more sympathetic characters to root for.
And when I think about it, Moneyball speaks to me in ways I hadn’t expected it to. It gave me a renewed enthusiasm for forging my own path, both in my professional ambitions and in life in general. It even gave me a new appreciation for the game and how, in some ways, it has to work just like any other business. Most of all, it gave me a chance to connect with my father over his favorite sport, and with his own father (my grandfather) succumbing to illness, inspired us both to reevaluate what we want out of life and what we can do—no matter how unconventional—to make it happen. Those rare times when a film comes along at just the right time in your life to help you through adversity or just give you a new perspective are what make them so magical for me, and this year Moneyball did just that.
When I saw it over the summer, I thought Super 8 was a wonderful, genuine homage to Steven Spielberg that also incorporated the more somber themes of loss and grief, but watching it again after going through a loss of my own really drove it home for me. And when I think of those kids and the enthusiasm they put into their kooky movie project, I find myself all kinds of inspired to do something creative just for fun of it. For those reasons, I found it both incredibly entertaining and moving, making it probably the closest runner-up I’ve ever had to call.
Others include: Drive, for being the best combination of all of my favorite crime drama tropes in a boldly subdued, Michael Mann-esque package; The Tree of Life for its sheer ambition and ability to work entirely in moods even if it is ultimately a narrative mess; Rango for challenging the animated feature formula and making Johnny Depp entertaining again; a touching little film called The Music Never Stopped for exploring the cognitive power of music as a father tries to reconnect with his amnesiac son.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
I almost didn’t participate in this year’s movies picks–a quick glance at most of other year end lists had me Googling movie titles, so I clearly missed out on most of the Cinematic Masterpieces of 2011. Fortunately I took the time this week to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and it jumped to the top of my list. Some of that comes from the profound sense of homesickness it caused in me–the sets and characterizations and phone rings were so real I felt like I could smell the actors. But the rest comes from it being a masterful film, full of a sense of impending doom that doesn’t really seem to matter when it comes. The entire cast is terrific, but Gary Oldman knocks it out of the park as Smiley, a man who understands the spy game better than anyone, and yet must know how little it matters. With less than five gunshots in the whole movie, this is not a film about the athletic young spy fighting for NATIONAL SECURITY!!!, but about what happens to old men and old countries and old rivalries when people aren’t anything more than pieces for a spymaster to play with. Tremendous.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams may be my favorite Herzog movie. For starters, it actually finds a use for 3D by showing the contours and dips and cracks in the Chauvet cave–allowing the viewer to really feel like they’re there. While the ruminations of Herzog and the characters he finds are as delightful as always (and include albino alligators), the cave paintings are the star of the film and it’s wonderful to get a chance to see them like they really are.
What’s Your Number? is by no means a cinematic masterpiece, but it is hands down, one of the best romantic comedies–just a very solid outing in the genre. Anna Faris and Chris Evans are both funny and affable and the film manages to be better than its terrible name and sexist premise would suggest.
The Tree of Life
Surely the most ambitious movie of the year, and startlingly effective in achieving its ambitions, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was my favorite movie this year. I have a terrible suspicion that too many people will have gone to see it because of the dinosaurs. Much was made of the dinosaurs. Here I am right now drawing attention to them. But this is not a movie about dinosaurs, this is a movie about placing a human life in the context of the yawning abyssal maw of eternity. This is a movie about the laughable impossibility of a personal relationship with the god of the universe. This is a movie about being really fucking tired of your dad. While it may have divided audiences, my orientation toward it is unambiguous: It is upsettingly, majestically great.
Hanna was the year’s surprise, artfully pointing the way to a post-Bourne future for thrillers. Drive was a Steve McQueen movie for the 21st century, which I think we can agree is a good thing. And though its reception was lukewarm and it seems destined for footnote territory, Paul made me laugh and laugh and laugh.
Full disclosure: I work for the company that was responsible for the book on which Hugo is based, but I can assure you I’m not being paid to say I enjoyed this movie and think its the best of the year. I’m not even a Scorsese devotee. I know that’s kind of sacrilege. There are the classics of course, like Taxi Driver, but then there’s some more recent stuff like Gangs of New York, which I thought bathed in excess. And that’s maybe one of the reasons I liked Hugo so much. Scorsese is forced to strip away the usual raging severity (and forced to strip away his characters’ propensity to strip down, as well) featured in his other films and just tell one simple, beautiful, multi-layered story about love, about family, and about film itself. The movie might be lead by two capable youngsters, but it’s this film’s supporting adults, Ben Kingsley, Sascha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, and the always chameleon-like Helen McCrory that give the movie its heart, and occasionally broke my heart while watching them. Hugo is a movie about movies, that renewed my faith that they do, indeed make em like they used to, if not better.
Almost Snagged The Top Spot: A Better Life, which more people should’ve seen and should still be talking about. Hanna (and, to a lesser extent, Source Code), which revealed that good movies do occasionally come out in the first part of the year. And The Descendants, another slam dunk dramedy from director Alexander Payne.
Better Than Anyone Gives Them Credit: Scream 4, for actually offering up some sort of critique of our remake culture, even if everyone skipped it to see some horror remake instead. What’s Your Number? for being better than Bad Teacher, despite what the box office (or some critics) might say. Corey Stoll for his scene-stealing turn as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris. 50/50 for every scene not featuring Seth Rogen. And X-Men: First Class for an underrated remake-quel that also gave us a glimpse into the star potential of Fassbender way before Shame gave us um, a whole lot more glimpses.
David Fincher is one of the best film directors alive, but he began as the visionary behind cinematic music videos like Madonna’s “Express Yourself”, George Michael’s “Freedom 90″ and Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun”. He’s largely left the format behind since moving to the big screen, but finds time for one every now and again. Such is the case with the video for Trent Reznor and Karen O’s cover of “Immigrant Song” that played over the teaser trailer for Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Pitchfork has it now, prepare for amazement.
Parks and Recreation
Maybe it’s disingenuous to pick a show I started watching this summer as the year’s best, but dammit, I’m going to. In part this is because Parks & Rec‘s third season was incredibly strong and its fourth season shows no sign of slowing down. In part, it’s because the show was so delightful I wanted to watch it again and again — and had to, because I was on a mountain with literally nothing else to watch. It’s not a perfect show and it’s not as comedic as other comedy shows, but it’s TV that actually has me looking forward to seeing it every week. As much as I like all the shows I regularly watch, Parks and Recreation is the only one I never get behind in. It’s just a delight to watch every week and one of the least condescending portrayals of Real America on a comedy. Plus, it doesn’t help that all the couples I want to see make out do.
Downton Abbey is probably not a fair pick since season two has only aired in England so far. But America, get excited. Not only is my favorite soap opera as wonderfully soapy as ever, but season two is far better than season one, which was pretty damn good itself. There’s something about a World War that brings out the best in everyone. Downton Abbey takes the opportunity the Great War offers and runs with it, adding depth and pathos to every character on the show, while never abandoning its snippy society roots. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had watching TV all year and it’d be my top choice if it wasn’t so unfair to do that to people who hadn’t seen it yet.
Community is a show I adore without being as hardcore about it as, well, the rest of the internet. In fact, that element probably scares me away from being a fan more than anything. Yet it’s hard to deny how good the show has been this year, even if the threat of cancellation still looms. I’m not sold on season three yet, admittedly, but the highest highs of the season have been some of the best comedic TV work I’ve seen. And the lows, well… I like to pretend they’re not there. Moreover, the show managed to invert the “will they, won’t they” paradigm, make a Western paintball shoot out seem realistic and if not redeem Chevy Chase at least keep him away from the rest of the cast a lot more. I don’t think Community needs to be on the air for another 10,000 years, but it certainly deserves at least another season to finish the story it’s started.
Parks and Recreation
What a difference a few months make. As of September, I was threatening to break up with Parks and Rec. Not because it wasn’t a good, heartwarming show, but because I wasn’t laughing enough for a tiny period of time there. But any momentary laugh-related restlessness has most certainly passed. Parks and Rec has truly become a rare TV occurrence, a show that just keeps on steadily improving with age. Unlike its sorta-sister show The Office, Parks and Rec’s characters continue to actually grow, and I in turn grow to love them more with each episode. No matter how many internet memes are erected in worship of Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson, Amy Poehler will always be the deserving, delightful star of this show, with Adam Scott getting second billing in greatness as the perfect love interest for lovely Leslie Knope. Meanwhile, it’s perhaps the anti-Ben and Leslie, the spontaneously married Andy and April, whose wonderful wackiness is often the root of show’s comedic gold. While I’ll refrain from doing so, I could spend days reciting the great things show has done with many of its supporting and recurring players (such as Aziz Ansari’s Tom “Chicky Chicky Parm Parm” Haverford, Retta’s sardonic Donna, Jim O’Heir’s fantastically forlorn Jerry, Mo Collins’ lustful lush Joan Callamezzo, and Ben Schwartz’ goofball sidekick Jean-Ralphio). And after this year’s birther-battling episode “Born and Raised,” I can’t wait to see what Parks and Rec has in store for the election season next year. Beneath all the usual NBC comedy zaniness, I like that this political world-set show actually has something to say satirically. Parks isn’t all recreation, and for that reason and many more, it’s my show of the year.
My apologies again this year to The Good Wife, which is more often The Great Wife, for falling to the runner-up position again this year (an overdose of Eli might’ve contributed). Justified came close to the top spot too, for a more than just fine sophomore season. I will admit I almost gave the top spot to The Glee Project too. If you had told me last year that the best reality show of 2011 would be one on Oxygen devoted to casting people for a show I don’t really even enjoy anymore, I wouldn’t have believed you. But Project was far more compelling and consistent than the scripted show it spun off from. Then there’s Revenge, which gets props for being way better than I ever expected it to be, and which was the best soap primetime has seen in years. And the sleek and stylish British import The Hour slides nicely into the Mad Men-sized honorable mention period piece hole. This was also the year of Damon Wayans Jr., who briefly appeared on Fox’s New Girl (a show way more than just having an– ugh, I’m going to say it – adorkable lead) before returning to his day job on the inconsistent, but also oftentimes uproariously hilarious Happy Endings. Sadly, the happy renewal for Endings likely factored into the end of ABC’s other underrated comedy Mr. Sunshine, whose short life I still mourn. And lastly, there’s, Beavis and Butt-head, who scored in their return from the dead, thriving in the often dumbed-down land of Snooki and 16 and Pregnant. Heh heh. I said “score.”
I had almost no expectations going into this new series after seeing the initial promotional spots for it over the summer. I didn’t even realize that it was based on an Israeli TV series called Prisoners of War (although, aside from the core premise, I can’t imagine that the two are all that closely related). All I knew was that I’ve always liked the lead actors since their breakout TV roles years ago—Damian Lewis in Band of Brothers, Claire Danes in My So-Called Life—and that the show was being produced by the minds behind landmark TV hit 24.
Whatever genetics it might share with that terrorist thriller are dialed back in favor of setting up a world far more familiar to our own, where things slip through the cracks and people often make the wrong decisions despite having the best intentions. Most of all, characters in Homeland are motivated by real emotions and circumstances, giving the show a very natural feel as it progresses from one episode to the next. When Sgt. Brody returns home as a distant husband and father, it’s unsettling and suspicious, but when we learn that in his eight years of captivity, he taught and essentially adopted his captor’s son only to see the boy fall victim to a US airstrike, we understand his reluctance to embrace family (and country) again. And when it’s revealed that Carrie entertained a momentary tryst with her supervisor Estes, we start to understand how it was a result of (and perhaps contributed to) her ongoing emotional imbalance, which ultimately leads to other, greater improprieties that risk the security of the nation and those around her.
As I’ve noted throughout its dozen or so episodes since it debuted in October, it’s been a surprising discovery that I’ve found myself completely invested in. While I was initially concerned that it would flex its pay-TV muscles a bit too much by going overboard with sex and violence, the show found a comfortable balance and ditched any gimmickry after a few episodes. Instead, its smart, topical writing and methodical pace give us a chance to get to know the characters and why they are the way they are, rather than pushing forward to the next giant plot reveal. Because of that, when those big moments do come, they feel all the more rewarding. In that regard, Homeland resembles some of the better shows on TV today, and certainly one of the best of this year.
I first saw the pilot of Breaking Bad over a year ago and wasn’t impressed. I thought the premise was intriguing, but it moved at a snail’s pace. When I finally gave it another try this past summer, I finally understood what all the fuss was about. The (mis)adventures of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are some of the most compelling and heartbreaking I’ve ever seen on television, and somehow, this year’s fourth season surpassed everything that has come before it. One can only wonder where things go from that truly explosive finale.
Meanwhile, in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, life for the Taylors came to a close as they moved on in the final season of Friday Night Lights. Yes, murder plot and all, getting to know those fictional characters and their lives was probably the closest I’ve ever equated watching a TV show with watching real friends and neighbors.
TV also got medieval this year, and while I was adequately pleased with the noble effort to adapt Camelot yet again, and I continued to enjoy the brutality and hedonism of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, it was Game of Thrones that came away with all of the acclaim—and rightfully so, considering that it’s probably the heftiest wager ever on whether or not hard adult fantasy can work on television.
Friday Night Lights
I am not a crying man. I can count the number of times I’ve cried in my entire life on both hands, and the times media has made me cry on one. But I totally lost it at the end of the Friday Night Lights finale, the overwhelmingly emotional capper of a series that will go down as one of the greatest that TV will ever produce. FNL is a deceptively simple show composed of good, normal people trying their best to live good, normal lives, grappling with issues we’ve all dealt with: relationships with the people we love, the closing of chapters in our lives, the joy of success, the pain of loss. But over the course of five years, it’s impossible for anyone who watched the show regularly to not feel like a part of the Taylor, Saracen and Riggins families. Its final season sums up what made the series as a whole so great — the good guys win a few and lose a few with nobility and grace — but the final few minutes accomplishes it even more beautifully. The game was never the ultimate end, it’s the lessons learned on the field as a team that guide you through life. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. A simple idea carried off completely guilelessly.
Breaking Bad exemplifies the very best that TV can achieve, with a magnificent season — probably its best yet — that continually boosts a small, intimate show to mythic proportions. HBO is getting closer to replicating their Sopranos/Deadwood/Wire glory days with fantastic freshmen series Game of Thrones and Enlightened. The triumphant return of Beavis and Butt-head proves the immortality of its characters and format. And on the cancelled front, my beloved Men of a Certain Age was simply too nice and sweet to live, and Onion Sportsdome was too nasty and smart.
For no reason in particular, 2011 became a year in which I very nearly opted out of mainstream entertainment altogether. I listened mostly to old stuff in my iTunes library and obscure electronic soundtracks for cult webcomics, attended fewer movies than I do in a normal year, and watched almost no television. Only one show kept me from being utterly disconnected: Community. Dan Harmon’s brilliant sitcom has only gotten better in its third season; it’s joined the august ranks of “things so great I cannot believe they exist.” Seriously, how does this show continue to get made? Complicated characters, intricate multi-season running gags, animated foosball facedowns… it just doesn’t stand to reason. Community is almost too good.
With its surreal, psychedelic art direction and design, and its almost Twilight Zone-esque stories, Adventure Time is another show whose continued existence baffles me. I hope to remain baffled for season to come.
Are the tides in the late night wars turning? NBC, who has led in late night ratings since 1994, has just suffered its first November sweeps loss in 17 years, with David Letterman’s Late Show and Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show beating both Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night. Despite the very small margin of victory — Letterman averaged a 0.9 in the 18-49 demo vs. Leno’s 0.9 — this is pretty big news. Leno didn’t just eke out a win over Letterman for close to two decades, he completely decimated him for most of that, with Letterman routinely getting only 2/3 of Leno’s audience.
There are a lot of reasons for this, the chief of which is NBC’s completely pathetic ratings overall. Last night, literally twice as many people watched CBS’s primetime lineup (8 million) over NBC’s primetime lineup (4 million). And that’s by far their best night. And the real story here is probably the declining ratings of late night TV overall, which is frankly a dying format done in by oversaturation, declining ratings of all network TV and viewer disinterest.
But there’s no doubt now that the Conan/Leno debacle last year seriously damaged The Chin in the eyes of audiences. While his job is likely safe as long as he wants it (I doubt NBC will ever fire anyone ever again), The Tonight Show itself may not continue past him (and he’s 61 years old) if ratings and revenues continue to slide.
Jay-Z and Kanye West: Watch The Throne
Disappointing as I found 2011 in the album field — loath as I am to admit that — I must also make it clear that Watch The Throne didn’t enchant me on first listen. Its dark, textured, troubled rhymes sunk in slowly, but permanently, thanks to both of the massive talents involved reining in each other’s less appealing tendencies and playing to their strengths. Kanye brings the studio crowds (most notably Frank Ocean, who lends a faraway tenor to opener “No Church In The Wild”) and that irresistible “Try A Little Tenderness” sample anchoring “Otis”; Jay-Z brings the thoughtful stanzas displayed on “Murder to Excellence” and “New Day.” The rare vanity project whose follow-up I would look forward to, even though it might be 2017 before these guys will be in the same room again.
Wild Flag, “Romance,” Fountains of Wayne, “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” Beyoncé, “Countdown,” OK Go, “The Greatest Song I Ever Heard,” Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass”.
Fucked Up: David Comes To Life
Everyone’s favorite quirky and mysterious Canadian hardcore band with a completely unmarketable name signaled that they were ready for the big time on their 2008 breakthrough The Chemistry of Common Life in the oddest way possible: with a flute solo. Chemistry was one of the decade’s most unique and surprising records, so good that its legions of new fans (myself included) immediately started to worry how they could possibly top it. Enter this year’s triumphant David Comes To Life, an incredible concept album about love, life and loss that recalls the glory days of the early 70′s when The Who, Bowie and The Kinks were churning out ambitious but accessible masterpieces every 8 months. Lead guitarist and main songwriter Mike Haliechuk has crafted a record full of relentless and unforgettable hooks, pushing the band into even more accessible territory on wall-of-sound singles like “Queen of Hearts” and “The Other Shoe” despite the ferocious growl of frontman Damian Abraham. Now I foolishly worry once again, how can they possibly top this?
My opinion of Drake‘s assorted output up to now has been a disinterested “it’s fine,” but Take Care is absolutely fantastic, a deeply weird and sexy warts-and-all self portrait that sounds like Marvin Gaye and Portishead in space (feel free to use that quote in your ads, Mr. Drake). Wild Flag‘s self-titled debut unites two of my favorite artists — Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Helium’s Mary Timoney — and more than lives up to those lofty expectations with a diverse set that spans tight pop-punk (“Boom”) and psychedelic prog (“Glass Tambourine”). Indie music is going through an electro boom of late with fine new work from AraabMuzik, Zola Jesus, Class Actress and Washed Out, among others. And man oh man was it good to hear PJ Harvey regain a pulse with the driving and hypnotic Let England Shake.
Rival Sons: Pressure & Time
If there’s one album that I’ve played more than any other this year (and with good reason), it’s this second studio outing from the up and coming California quartet Rival Sons. What the Sons have done in only three albums (including an EP) is kick off a sincere and whole-hearted revival of a classic rock sound that seemed on the brink of existence. Sure, it’s great to listen to the classics from all the greats of the ‘70s, but to hear the Sons infuse their music a new energy and modern sensibility is a sheer delight. For my money, Pressure & Time is damn near the most solid rock album I’ve heard in quite a while. And for what it’s worth, they’ve been catching on since the album’s release in June. Those listening closely likely spotted “Torture” in this fall’s Real Steel or “Pressure & Time” and “Get Mine” in the new Hawaii Five-O, and you can read my review from earlier in the year for more highlights, but here’s the gist: you must listen to this. You won’t be sorry, friends. They’re currently on tour in Europe, and one can only hope Rival Sons will be greeted with no less than legions of new fans upon their return home because, seriously, these guys can rock. Make it happen, people.
It was a close second, but the album that I was most affected by was The Streets’ Computers and Blues. It’s another solid effort by Mike Skinner and company, and while it’s full of insight and reflection, it’s also a bittersweet final chapter for the UK outfit, wrapped up with the perfectly touching bow that is “Lock the Locks”. Skinner’s vocal style may be an acquired taste, but The Streets influential production is exactly how I imagine electronic music would evolve if people dared to explore—and knowing that it’ll all be a thing of the past is kind of heartbreaking.
Props also go to veteran rockers Whitesnake (Forevermore) and The Cars (Move Like This) for pulling off two surprising returns to form; Tyler, the Creator (Goblin) for rolling his own and quickly becoming the most polarizing figure in hip hop; and those in the electronic scene like Chase & Status (No More Heroes), Excision (X Rated) and Bassnectar (Divergent Spectrum) continuing to push the sonic envelope with quality releases. On top of that, if Trent Reznor can win an Oscar for The Social Network, surely there’s a nomination spot for The Chemical Brothers and their score for Hanna—although having an equally well-crafted film for the music to support would’ve helped.