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Eating "The Leftovers"

Watching this show is kind of like punching a wall.

Grantland's Andy Greenwald posited a very insightful question in reviewing the first season of HBO's new series The Leftovers this past week: Has there been any indication that anyone has actually forgotten anything?

In that question is one of the great flaws of this ambitious show.

The Leftovers is hardly anyone's idea of a perfect show.  Most people I have talked to struggled to stay with it.  I repeatedly had to play catch-up deciding over and over to give it another chance.  The Leftovers is a show that is just good enough to keep you wondering, it will flounder for multiple episodes before putting together enough powerful scenes to pull you back in.

In that, is one of the show's redeeming qualities.  On the few occasions it manages to string together enough well written and coherent scenes for the audience to stop thinking "what the hell?" The Leftovers can evoke some strong emotional responses.

The experience of loss is a pretty universal and relatable theme to build a show around.  Everyone knows the desperation, the frustration, the anger.  It's in these moments that The Leftovers hooks people, gets them thinking.  But, the show has of yet failed to take the next step after these initial moments.  Nothing is explored beyond the surface, things are half-resolved in simplistic fashion with ham-handed imagery and metaphor.  In the world of the Leftovers, two percent of the world's population disappeared by an "Act of God" and the show's plot is heavily populated by the all powerful deus ex machina.

Need to wrap up a scene? Put a dog in it.

This band-aid solution is expertly demonstrated in the closing moments of the season finale when the oft tortured Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) seems to completely snap as she kisses two wax dolls vaguely resembling her family good night and prepares to drive off into the extremely ambiguous unknown.  Nora's character has always been that of one barely holding it together beneath a calm veneer.  So the snapping, while frustrating, is at least somewhat logical for the character.  What's not so logical, for the character or the audience, is that she is suddenly flung back to sanity by the mere sight of a bi-racial baby.  Yeah, sorry, not buying it.

Now, these existential problems of depth in the plot and characters are both very serious issues, but a show can get by with shallow characters and thin plot if its fun (see, 24).  But a show without a consistently engaging storyline littered with characters the audience hates, that show is dead in the water.

Storylines that you can't wait for?  Every show has them.  We've all fast forwarded through Bran to get to Arya Stark. I'm not sure where to find them on The Leftovers.  In episode 3, "Two Boats and a Helicopter", the preacher character (played by Chris Eccleston) is fascinating and complex.  But everything he does and feels seems to be completely forgotten just two episodes later.  Embattled police chief and central character, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), has the most consistent presence on the show, but even he is prone to stretches of fatigue (that absurdly stupid dream sequence in the finale, anyone?).

Characters you hate?  Oh, this show has got them.  I've never watched a show that had so many storylines I got violently angry at the sight of.  Too much goes unknown to make the audience invested and too little make sense for use to care (so, who the hell was Wayne?).  

Then, there is the Guilty Remnant.

Ladies and Gentlemen: I give you the most obnoxious, hypocritical, self righteous, stupid faced character in the history of television.

There is nothing interesting about watching insanity in a vacuum.  That is exactly what the audience is subjected to every time Liv Tyler's stupid face smoking a cigarette on screen.

I could believe that if an event like the one depicted in the show actually occurred a part of the population would lose it completely and go off and live in a silence vowed cult somewhere.  But that's not interesting enough for show runner Damon Lindelof, so the Guilty Remnant has to be a group with goals (yes, I know it's based on a book, I'm still not letting Lindelof off the hook on this one).  Those goals, according to them, are to make people remember.  Remember the event that absolutely no one on the show has been able to move on from, much less forget.

Here's the problem with the Guilty Remnant:  They're hypocrites and they're liars and no one seems to be aware of it.  They vow silence but then they talk.  They say they want people to remember but what they really want is for people to give up, to let their grief consume them and stop living.  In spite of these two very obvious issues, no one else on the show calls them out on it or even appears to notice.  Instead, the show's finale serves as validation for the GR.  They made the good townsfolk remember and they just couldn't handle it.


By the way, does anyone on this show ever, EVER lock their doors?  How is it the GR can just waltz all willy nilly into these houses over and over again?  Is this show set in New York or Pleasantville?

Show runner Damon Lindelof is not one to turn a blind eye to negative reviews.  When Lost tanked on its ending he heard the cries and he answered them.  Fairly or not, The Leftovers, have drawn a lot of comparisons to Lost, most of them disparaging.  I don't see many similarities between the two in the way of show structure but the connections between central characters and the tactic of using emotional triggers as a stand-in for actual resolution are all too familiar.

The music swells, someone cries, and everything is magically alright.

The Leftovers has already been renewed for another season, and I don't know where it will go from here.  The source material is supposedly exhausted so Lindelof will have quite a bit of latitude.  I hope he uses it well, but I probably won't stick around to find out.


The New Ryan Adams Album is Incredible

I remember the first time I listened to Ryan Adams.  It was Columbus Day weekend at Providence College during my sophomore year.  Most of the student body had retreated to their home towns for the long weekend and I was one of the few warriors to stay on Campus.  It was that friday night that I sat in my dorm room, with monsoon like weather going on outside  finding myself with little to do.  I discovered the Ryan Adams album Rock N Roll on the campus music share site, more specifically two songs from Rock N Roll: "So Alive" and "Anybody Want to Take Me Home".  I had heard Ryan Adams' songs before that moment, but I had never really listened.  Nothing was ever the same.

Years down the line, I'd come to find that Rock N Roll is considered one of Adams' lesser albums, a departure from his wheel house sound of soulful folk/country/rock.  His fan base has grown and waned since then.  But that weekend it was everything.  Sitting here now, with a glass of white wine and Ryan Adams' new self titled album playing through my headphones, the feeling is the same as it was that rainy weekend back in 2005.

Ryan Adams has made his name as a restless troubador.  A man never satisfied in a days work, never willing to settle for one style.  This has shown in the twenty-one different albums and EPs he has released since 2000 as a solo act or fronting a band.  His sound has gone from Country to Folk to Pop to Rock to Punk to Western to all points back again, and it all has its own distinct charm.  All of it has been distinctly Ryan Adams.

When I finally had the chance to experience Adams live, it was at the Newport Folk Festival this summer.  For a folk festival he had his electric guitar plugged in with surprising regularity (there were also a suprising number of Danzig covers).  Listening to his new album it is understandable.  Ryan Adams the album is decidedly a return to rock for Adams, who had spent much of the last ten years turning out folk and country styled jams.  The crisp production is something new for an Adams album, with a lot of the raw emotion coming from the guitars and organs.  The crunching guitars are something Adams hasn't used since 2008's Cardinology and hasn't nurtured hardly at all in his career aside from punk side projects like his stellar 1984 released last month (if you got your hands on a copy, you are one lucky soul).

All of the electricity and howling guitars on Ryan Adams only makes the transition more stark when Adams unplugs for the one stripped down acoustic track on the album, the heart wrenching "My Wrecking Ball" (a song that was unsurprisingly well recieved at the Newport Folk Festival).

The real triumpth of Ryan Adams, is the balance that Adams finds between his soaring guitars and his signature deliberate lyrics.  In the past, on more guitar centric albums like Rock N Roll the impact of the lyrics were sacrificed to serve the sound of the album.  Here the crunching sound compliments Adams' creeping urgency in his vocals.  The sound of Ryan Adams is one of a constant build, giving the listener seldom few pay offs, making those precious hooks in catchy tracks like "Gimmie Something Good" and "Stay With Me" all the more memorable.

With Ryan Adams we don't just get tastes of Adams' musical genius, we get to ruminate in it, let it simmer.  We get the power of Cardinology with the weight of Heartbreaker and the accessability of Gold.

What we have here in Ryan Adams is one of the best albums of the last fifteen years from one of the best artists of the last fifteen years.  As one of the fans that never left, I will be glad to see the name Ryan Adams swell in the world of music once again.


Gentlemen's DisAgreement - 9/10/2014

Here it is, yet another ramblin' pod for all you ramblers out there!  In this episode, Amelia Bienstock shares some of her expansive knowledge and experiences with Broadway theater and I try to keep up (my favorite part is when I describe the show Memphis as taking place in New Orleans).  Listen below.


NOTE:  Gentlemen's disAgreement is now available on Itunes!


Musical Theater! Is it Dead? Should We Kill It?


Musicals are a funny thing.  Some people consider them to high culture entertainment others, the tacky trash of stage medium.  Yes,  there are a great many varying opinions on the quality of entertainment found on the Great White Way, I find it is best judged on a case by case basis.  Or, at least broken down into smaller groups so we can easily determine what should be celebrated and what should be stopped at all costs.

Big Boy's Game?

For about a decade now the popular wisdom regarding Broadway shows is that you need to have name attached at some level in order to be a success.  Whether it is a proven star, producer, or writer if you're trying to put on a show with a bunch of nobodies you might as well schedule the closing date at the same time you do your opening night.  

There are certainly plenty of examples to back this wisdom up. But, shows that received critical acclaim and were awarded with early closes are nothing new.  The same goes for shows that find success thanks in no small part to having a big name attached or popular source material.

Going back decades, The King and I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady are all based on pre-existing material.  Sure it is tough to get smaller productions onto Broadway and onto Broadway for a long time, but that has always been rare.

Money, Money, Money!

Well, its been 2 years, time for another revival of Les Miserables.

The two things that have truly changed about Broadway in the last 10-15 years are extra-long running productions and the revival.  The latter is pretty obviously going to become more common as years go by.  The more big shows there are, the more revivals there are going to be down the line.

When it comes to the Broadway mega-show that lasts and lasts (ala, Lion King, Wicked, and Phantom of the Opera) these productions are the only truly new thing about Broadway.  Of the 10 longest running Broadway productions only ONE closed before 1990 (Oh, Calcutta) and four are still running.  Breaking 1,000 performances on Broadway used to mean your show was a smash hit, now if you don't reach 1,000 many would consider it a failure.

The longest running Rogers and Hammerstein show of all time, Oklahoma!'s 2,212 performances is only good enough for #29 on the all-time list.

This new reality ultimately means less theaters for shows to play if they are tied up in longer engagements.  In spite of this, however, the number of new shows released onto Broadway every year hasn't tailed off much.  This means slightly higher turnover between shows.  This turnover gives the appearance of a lower success rate, but in fact, the exact opposite is true with shows running longer and making more money than ever.

I, for one, have never been a fan of the big "Disney" productions like Wicked or Mamma Mia but just because they're watered down and safe doesn't mean they're destroying Broadway.

Broadway is at its best when it is doing something you can't see someplace else.  This, of course, is a big reason why the returns are so greatly diminished when a classic Broadway show is transposed to another medium (cough*The Producers*cough).

Theater has always been a medium for intimacyy and that intimacy is lost when you pack a theater with 3,000 people to watch Idina Menzel fly around in green makeup.

Adele Dazeem filling in for Idina Menzel.

But you know what, maybe, MAYBE the success of big shows like Wicked help producers make the money to put out the lesser known shows that sometimes turn into greats like Avenue Q (which actually beat out Wicked for the Best Musical Tony).  Maybe, without one we couldn't have the other.

It's not always what we want, but it might just be what we need.  Don't worry about Broadway, it's doing just fine.

Actually, nevermind, screw Wicked.



Magnetic Fields

One of the all-time great unknown bands.

Magnetic Fields (aka Stephin Merritt's brain child) has been around since 1989 and has turned out more great anguished love songs than any other band in that time, but tragically, you still probably have never heard of them.

This is largely owed to their quirky sound and lack of any radio friendly singles.  Even the singles they do have are admittedly on the weirder side.  The fact that they all look like a bunch of middle-school music teachers doesn't help things.  The Fields are a tricky sort of band to crack, they make you search for their greatness.  It isn't going to be sitting on the surface, right their on the front page of Itunes for you to download.  But if you dive down, the treasures are more than worth the effort.

"100,000 Fireflies" may be my favorite song of all time.  It's originality and cleverness in the lyrics, the angelic tone coupled with the miserable state of depression and frustration the lyrics portray, it's a one of a kind type of honesty we all feel but rarely see in the open.

The band's (Merritt's) magnum opus comes in the form of 1999 69 Love Songs an actual compilation of 69 love songs written by Merritt.  The tongue-in-cheek title is a wonderful indicator of the bombast held within.  Songs that are in turn bitingly sarcastic and achingly sincere and run the gamut from pop to irreverent to bizarre experimental.

There are a few links on here making it easier for you to expose yourself to the Magnetic Fields if you were previously unfamiliar, but don't stop there.  Search far and wide, dive deep, the rewards are richer than you could imagine from reading this little article.

Magnetic Fields, supremely Underrated.