Showing posts with label Sound on Sight. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sound on Sight. Show all posts

March 23, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "Operation Thunder Dome"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

After last week’s meltdown from Brandon, it’s so refreshing to watch everyone return to focusing on the strategic side of the game. Crazy behavior makes for good TV, but Survivor works best when players are scheming to try and gain an edge. Both groups return to camp shell shocked after Brandon’s outburst, but most are ready to move forward. Corinne and Phillip are upset about getting thrown under the bus, yet both should have time to recover. This prospect becomes more likely after the tribal swap, which gives a 4-3 edge to the favorites in each new group. Instead of looking for a way to flip a favorite, the fans are more than willing to turn on each other. This is not a good idea. The new Gota tribe is loaded with arguably the seven physically strongest players left in the game. They’re also the better-looking group, at least according to Eddie. His priorities are a bit skewed away from actual game play. When the immunity challenge is all about power, it’s clear that this group is going to walk away with an easy win. Julia seems most likely to leave because of challenge weakness, but Matt is the bigger threat and is heading home.

Gota includes Malcolm, Erik, Reynold, and Eddie along with Sherri, Brenda, and Andrea. That’s a filthy team that should have the other tribe begging for the merge. Reynold and Eddie immediately start gunning for Sherri, and her sights are right back at them. This is wonderful news for the favorites, who gain a greater numbers advantage with either exit. In the original Fans vs. Favorites season, the fans lost their edge after the tribe swap and never recovered. They may have a similar fate in this outing. The outgunned Bikal has Corinne, Phillip, Cochran, and Dawn teaming up with Matt, Michael, and Julia. With the exception of a ridiculous Phillip, they’re likable but hardly ready to compete in physical challenges. Matt and Michael will do anything to stay in the game, but they seem too united for Cochran’s tastes. He wisely recognizes the danger of pairs after the merge and pushes for Matt to leave. This is disappointing because Julia is so dull; a wonderfully snarky Corinne even calls out her boredom when considering the vote. Matt is the most interesting fan in this cast, so it’s devastating to see him exit. There’s little that he can do against superior numbers, and even nastiness between Corinne and Phillip isn’t enough to change the vote.

This episode works because there are so many new interactions among the cast. Phillip immediately starts talking to Julia and is ready to induct Matt and Michael into “Stealth ‘R’ Us”. Playing this hard and over the top provides comic relief, and it’s clear that the editors are setting Phillip up for a big fall. Corinne has a great time with Matt and Michael, who she repeatedly calls “the gay” in a strangely flattering way. She’s all over this episode and has plenty of barbs, including comparing Phillip to a baby on a plane with diarrhea. Corinne hasn’t said much during the first five episodes, but she has a big personality that comes out in confessionals. Though she’s annoyed with Phillip, Corinne recognizes that he’s trustworthy and wants to stick with the plan. No one seriously considers flipping to the fans, which shows the difference with returning players. They recognize the importance of numbers and can ignore petty reasons to take out a rival. If the fans don’t find cracks in the favorites pretty soon, there may be no coming back against the superior forces.

The immunity challenge is familiar and all about being able to flip over large crates quickly. It exposes most of the new Bikal tribe as much weaker than their opponents. Brenda and Andrea are pretty small, but they show their skills and roll through the end. On the other side, Julia and Dawn have problems even moving the crates, and Cochran isn’t much better. There is a puzzle to close it out, but Gota rolls to victory. Rarely has a tribe in Survivor history been so stacked with challenge monsters. It’s going to take a different type of challenge for Bikal to have a chance. Their saving grace could be a merge, which might happen as soon as two weeks from now. If it gets delayed for too long, comfortable players among the favorites could be in trouble. Strategy rules the day, so wise players like Cochran should be fine. His choice to take out Matt is smart and removes a formidable opponent. There doesn’t seem to be a major issue with keeping Julia around for another few days.

Matt’s exit is a surprise because the editing clearly points to Julia being history. She randomly targets Dawn and seems lost when strategy comes into play. She does get a rare confessional, which hints strongly that she’s heading for the exits. Matt was instrumental in several previous votes, and he was a top choice to compete with the favorites after the merge. If Bikal loses next week, the question is whether Michael will follow his ally out the door. Julia may be such an easy vote that she can stick around for a while. A Gota loss would provide a more intriguing episode and force them to remove Sherri or Eddie. Despite what the editing suggests, the favorites are unlikely to make a change until it’s absolutely necessary. Unless the fans make a dramatic change and start playing harder, they’ll all be visiting the Ponderosa well before the final Tribal Council.

March 17, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "I Love Monkeys!"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

Only four episodes have passed, but this is shaping up to be one of the strangest installments in Amazing Race history. The season began with three teams quitting a Roadblock and was followed by a pair giving up due to a fear of water. David and Connor still win the two-part leg despite the fact that David has a ruptured Achilles. All of these are crazy examples, but they pale in comparison to the baffling conclusion this week. John and Jessica have clearly been one of the strongest teams in this competition. He seems bored by just avoiding elimination and has been focusing on alliances and other strategy. They earned the Express Pass in the opening week, but it ends up being the crutch that spells their downfall. The key with this reward is not waiting for the perfect time to play it. If there’s any doubt that elimination may happen, why take the chance? Believing the roller derby moms are behind them, John and Jessica stumble through the Detour and fall short at a deceptive Roadblock. He seems like the real culprit and repeatedly insists they’re in good shape, even after elimination. Phil’s “oy vey” comment before the end credits shows the peculiar nature of this surprise exit.

The editors gleefully telegraph John’s fall by repeatedly showing his arrogance. It’s hard to blame them, though. He makes it really easy by speaking frequently about his amazing skills. When talking about his attention to detail, John clearly explains that she isn’t so good, but he is awesome. Meghan and Joey are set up as an obvious counterpoint to them; the YouTube hosts look surprised every time they do well. Beyond the obvious enjoyment at watching an arrogant guy fall, the result shows the limited impact of making an alliance on the race. It may get them a better flight, but it means little in the final scramble to reach the mat. It also shows the dangers of thinking too hard about strategy. Even after their problems at the Detour, John and Jessica can still move on if they use the Express Pass at the Roadblock. Instead, he insists they’re fine despite all the evidence to the contrary. If there’s any doubt about their placement, a team should always expect the worst.

Last week ended with a cliffhanger of whether David would continue to race on crutches. When he immediately dismisses the idea this week, it’s clear this was a cheat by the editors. Shame on you, Amazing Race producers! Experienced viewers didn’t fall for this ploy. The clue from Phil sends teams to Bali to continue this honeymoon version of the race. Will they ever visit a crowded metropolitan area? The front group finds a flight that lands almost four hours ahead of the others. Max and Katie are the big winners by calling ahead to a travel agency and leap back to the front. They have a strong week and appear to be a top contender. John and Jessica also find a better flight with Joey and Meghan to get within two hours. Teams are raring to go, but their fate rests in the hands of a monkey. Their chosen ally must eat through a coconut to reveal their next clue. It’s a clever move, particularly when the monkey decides to make a run for it. The Detour choices are “Fruity Top” or “Sandy Bottom”, and nearly everyone chooses the first option. It involves constructing a large religious offering of fruits called a gebogan. It takes a while, but only John and Jessica have serious problems. They eventually choose the other Detour while everyone in America yells “Use the Express Pass!” at their screens.

“Sandy Bottom” looks harder from a physical standpoint but actually doesn’t seem too challenging. Mona and Beth show their mettle and gain some ground on the trailing group. The final task of this grueling double leg is a Roadblock at Uluwatu Beach. It’s a rare case where it tests knowledge of previous legs before the finale. Players navigate a large group of surfboards to locate something they’ve encountered in a previous leg. The brilliance of this task is requiring them to locate Phil to discover if their answer is correct. He isn’t easy to find and is a long way away, so taking random guesses is not a wise move. Another less sportsmanlike option is just stealing a glance at another team’s board; this move helps Connor to edge Winnie and grab a first-place finish. Caroline tries the random approach and picks general answers, and the failures push her to the edge. They still finish in fourth, but it’s clear they might not be ready to make a serious run. It comes down to Chuck versus John for the last spot, and the tenacious Alabama guy stays alive. Watching him crawl through small rock openings and run all over the beach makes it exciting to see him continue. That guy is great television.

Eight teams still remain in this race, yet it’s very difficult to see much differentiation among the teams. The hockey players seemed like one of the stronger pairs, but they stumble into seventh this time. Pam and Winnie nearly took a water craft right out of the competition a few weeks ago, yet they could be true contenders. This unpredictability could deliver a strong finish for a head-scratching season. When teams eventually leave the attractive islands of the Pacific, they’ll likely have to show more determination to survive. Regardless, there are sure to be more surprises in the coming weeks.

March 16, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "Persona Non Grata"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

When Survivor announced their cast of returning players for this second “Fans vs. Favorites” season, the one that stood out was Brandon Hantz. Although he provided memorable television in his first appearance, he’s also an unstable guy who demonstrated awful game play. Putting him back on the island felt like a bad idea, and it was only a matter of time before he lost his marbles. When his fragile state combines with nasty weather and other volatile personalities, it creates a powder keg that’s ready to explode. This week, a minor squabble with Phillip winds up Brandon and pushes him to new levels of rage. His choice to dump out the rice and beans is stunning even when compared to other wild moves. Never has a player so openly destroyed a tribe’s resources in front of them. It sometimes makes sense to keep a crazy player around for strategic purposes, but this situation is different. The favorites don’t feel comfortable having Brandon at camp, so gameplay considerations go out the window. When a tribe of returning players willingly forfeits immunity before a challenge, they want this nutcase out of commission as soon as possible.

The big question hanging over Brandon’s actions is whether he lost his mind or purposely acted insane to quit the game. Even though he isn’t a calm guy, Brandon knows what he’s doing. He’s been considering this type of move since Francesca was voted out in the first Tribal Council. This episode begins with Brandon talking about quitting, so he wants to exit the game with a bang. It’s like a disgruntled worker who walks into his boss’ office and keeps insulting him until he gets fired. While the employee doesn’t technically quit, the desired result is the same. The favorites try the diplomatic approach and have Corinne explain their desire to air their grievances at Tribal Council. Predictably, Brandon isn’t going to bypass his chance to grab the spotlight. He’s ready to fight Phillip in front of the cameras and the shocked fans tribe, but part of it is just bluster. Only the massage skills of Jeff Probst keep the situation from getting worse. Although he shares the blame as executive producer for casting Brandon again, Probst masterfully handles the situation and recognizes the story potential. He’s trying to avoid a horrible scene while realizing this is gold material.

Looking closer at the Brandon/Phillip conflict, it shows what happens when two oddball personalities come together. Phillip has spent his time grabbing camera time by giving silly nicknames and inducting everyone into his “Stealth ‘R’ Us” alliance. He’s in control on the surface, but no one takes him seriously. The exception is Brandon, who is carrying a major chip on his shoulder because Coach manipulated him in the South Pacific. Phillip tells him not to bite the hand that feeds him, which makes sense from a strategic standpoint. They’re in an alliance and can benefit by working together. The problem is that Brandon feels powerless to control his fate. Instead of working to usurp Phillip by getting votes against him, he decides it’s better to fall on his sword. While Brandon’s thinking is idiotic, it puts Phillip in a more tenuous place. The fans all witnessed the outburst and understand Phillip’s role in the tribe. When the tribes are likely swapped next week, they’ll immediately target him as a possible threat. His silly antics won’t blind them to his intentions to control the tribe. Brandon’s honest assessment of Phillip as a joke is actually spot on, and that makes it one of the most intriguing conversations thus far. If Brandon had channeled his anger towards beating Phillip, it could have worked given his good relationships with Cochran and Andrea.

Although the episode focuses on Brandon’s outbursts, there is some time with the fans. Despite eliminating a physically weaker player in Laura, they lose the reward challenge and are left scratching their heads. Sherri is on the outs after struggling, and the change for her has been stunning. Matt and Michael seem ready to work with Reynold and Eddie because they’re getting decimated. Speaking of Reynold, he also finds another hidden immunity idol. It’s pointless to complain about how easy it’s become to find these prizes. The producers clearly want players to find the idols quickly, so they hide them in obvious places. Reynold’s persistence serves him well, though telling Eddie is a mistake. Even passing information to an ally is unwise in this game. If Eddie’s back ends up against the wall, he’ll throw Reynold under the bus without a second thought.

Does casting a player like Brandon benefit Survivor? Yes and no. It provides compelling drama in this episode and makes it unpredictable. However, it also cheapens the show and shifts the attention too far away from strategy and game play. Reality TV gets criticized for showing insane camera hogs begging for attention, and this fits into that mold. Brandon has mental problems and serious inner demons, but this isn’t the place to exorcise them. Bringing him back and labeling him a “favorite” is questionable even if his mania doesn’t reach this crescendo. It’s a shameful move from Probst, Mark Burnett, and the other forces behind the scenes. They had to realize the potential for this type of breakdown when choosing Brandon. The refreshing part is that the issues happened early and didn’t poison the entire season. There is great potential with this group, and the remaining episodes could be great. The fans get a chance to regroup, and the potential for a shake up within the favorites is higher. With Brandon gone, Survivor is set to take off as it heads towards the merge.

March 15, 2013

The Groundbreaking Brilliance of Homicide: Life on the Street

Homicide: Life on the Street

This post was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link

When Homicide: Life on the Street premiered in January 1993 after the Super Bowl, it leaped into a different world than the standard hour-long dramas. There were a few exceptions like Hill Street Blues that provided an inspiration, but Creators Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana were entering uncharted territory. The cast lacks the typical pretty faces and mirrors the balding and overweight guys you might expect to see as homicide detectives. This is a show about “thinking cops” who use their wits instead of muscle to catch the bad guys. Setting up a formula with no shootouts or car chases, Levinson and Fontana changed the game for cop shows and network dramas in general. While the dwindling ratings pushed the series towards cancellation many times, it actually survived for seven seasons. The viewership never matched those of a breakout hit like NYPD Blue, but its impact on the television landscape was a lot more significant. Dramas like The Wire and The Shield wouldn’t exist without Homicide. It ranks among my favorite TV shows and deserves renewed attention 20 years after its original premiere.

Our story begins with Baltimore journalist David Simon, who spent a year following that city’s homicide detectives. The result was the fascinating non-fiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets in 1991. This felt like the perfect source material for a series, but networks would certainly want a different tone than the morose atmosphere of Simon’s book. Amazingly, NBC took a chance and gave a major promotional push to a show that didn’t glamorize the detectives’ jobs. It received huge ratings after the Super Bowl, but they quickly dropped as mainstream viewers didn’t stick around. Even so, critics and audiences looking for something different raved about the nine-episode season. NBC messed with the running order and made things more difficult, and that trend would continue in the future. The second season only received four episodes, and its future seemed dead in the water. Amazingly, the show returned for a third run with a complete 22 episodes, and that was the approach the rest of the way. The downside of this longevity was a change towards more action and prettier actors, but the original soul remained all the way to the end.

Kyle Secor and Andre Braugher in Homicide: Life on the Street

Watching Homicide in the early seasons was a remarkable experience; it was appointment television because it looked so much different than everything else. First of all, it was shot in Baltimore in a time when most shows were produced in New York or L.A. By using the authentic locations of that city, it brings a realism that’s impossible to recreate on a sound stage. The department headquarters looks drab and spare, and that fits with the dour nature of their profession. These men and women see the worst parts of humanity every day and are paid very modestly for their efforts. Their work can decimate marriages and make it impossible to live a normal life. Simon captured those difficulties in his book, and it works even better in the visual medium. When NBC required the producers to make cast changes, they made the intriguing choice to remove a character by suicide. “Crosetti” is one of the most powerful hours and shows the depressing aspects of this work. This moment is referenced multiple times in future seasons, particularly when another detective contemplates a similar action in the harrowing “Have a Conscience”.

This material could easily become too difficult to watch, but it never falls into that trap. The main reason is the wonderful ensemble cast, who bring such unique approaches to each character. Our entry point is Kyle Secor’s Tim Bayless, a newcomer who’s transferred into the department. He begins the series with idealistic views about right and wrong but is slowly decimated by the job. The early culprit is the Adena Watson case, his first as a primary. She’s a young girl who’s brutally murdered, and he becomes obsessed with finding the killer. His partner is the brilliant and extremely arrogant Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), and their bond is one of the cornerstones of the series. Braugher commands the screen and has a style that contrasts sharply with Secor’s understated approach. One of the show’s pivotal episodes is “Three Men and Adena”, which takes place almost entirely in “The Box” while they interrogate a suspect in the Watson killing. The remarkably written script from Fontana reaches a crescendo of back-and-forth exchanges between Bayless, Pembleton, and Moses Gunn as the possible killer. This first-season episode is the perfect starting point into Homicide’s style and ranks among the best in its entire run.

Ned Beatty and Richard Belzer in Homicide: Life on the Street

This is hardly a two-man show and includes excellent work from too many actors to mention. Richard Belzer’s John Munch is a steady comic presence throughout the show yet still fits in this world. He slides perfectly into the trickier material, starting with his “I am not Montell Williams!” rant in the pilot “Gone for Goode”. When his partner Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) and two other detectives are shot in the third season, Belzer plays Munch’s anger and thoughts of vengeance just right. Beatty is quite a find given his resistance to TV work prior to that point. Bolander is the grumpy yet lovable “big man” who brings such heart to the show. It’s too bad that Beatty grew tired of the network messiness and left after three seasons. Clark Johnson now makes his living behind the camera but has great screen presence as Meldrick Lewis. He’s such a distinctive character and balances the humor and drama as well as Belzer. NBC requested more sex appeal in the fourth season, and the result was the casting of Reed Diamond as Mike Kellerman. His start is a bit shaky, but he becomes a fascinating character. His involvement in the shooting of kingpin Luther Mahoney leads to one of the most intriguing storylines. Keeping everyone in line is Lieutenant Giardello, played with power and grace by Yaphet Kotto. When he takes charge and puts his foot down, even headstrong guys like Pembleton stop and listen.

Homicide does an excellent job with its female characters, particularly Melissa Leo as Kay Howard. She maintains a tough exterior and is a great detective with better clearance rates than the guys. Long before she mastered overacting to get an Oscar, Leo reins in those tendencies and shows Howard’s frustrations at not getting respect. The show is also groundbreaking in its portrayal of African-Americans. Along with Kotto, Braugher, and Johnson, there are many recurring characters that rarely fit into the formula. Giancarlo Esposito joins the cast as Giardello’s son in the final season and brings an interesting personal connection. Few shows in this television era give such great roles to African-Americans without forcing them into a certain mold. There is only one Frank Pembleton, and his middle-class Jesuit background differs sharply from Lewis’ history.

Reed Diamond as Mike Kellerman on Homicide: Life on the Street

Although it shares a general framework with today’s procedurals, Homicide differs because its characters are so damn distinctive. They’re likable even when they do the completely wrong thing, and the writers rarely let them down. Simon joined the show as a staff writer in the later seasons, and that experience certainly shaped his work creating The Wire. There are so many great episodes to recommend from the entire seven-year run. The first two seasons are nearly flawless, and even the slight dips are counteracted by stunning individual stories as the show moves forward. An episode like season six’s “Subway” diverges considerably from the normal structure and ranks among the best entries. Pembleton spends most of it just talking with a guy trapped by a subway car who’s played by Vincent D’Onofrio. Other standout examples delve into Bayless’ dark past of abuse, specifically “Betrayal” in season five. All the main actors get a chance to expand their characters, and that keeps the show rolling. The seventh season loses some steam, but the finale and movie epilogue close the stories in just the right fashion. They show the persistence of the original vision and give it a well-deserved send-off. It remains the classic police drama and transcends its genre in the best way possible.

Ten Essential Homicide: Life on the Street Episodes
“Gone for Goode”
“Three Men and Adena”
“Bop Gun”
“The Gas Man”
“The Documentary”
“Fallen Heroes”
“Forgive Us Our Trespasses”

March 13, 2013

Podcast Spotlight: The Televerse

I don't watch enough shows regularly to make TV podcasts worthwhile, but I make an exception for The Televerse. Hosts Kate and Simon have a great rapport and cover the most interesting material from the past week. She's an enthusiast who consumes a crazy amount of shows, while he's the cynic. Both are willing to question even beloved series like Breaking Bad when they stray off course. Their candid opinions don't always mesh with conventional wisdom yet are supported by plenty of evidence. The "Week in TV" covers a large volume in a pretty short time yet provides great details. It's tricky to discuss so much and keep the show flowing, but Kate and Simon are up to the challenge. They also spotlight a specific episode that stands out from the fray each week. The picks often include shows like Justified, The Good Wife, and Mad Men, but some surprises will reach this status.

The highlight of The Televerse is each week's "DVD Shelf", which goes in depth for 30-40 minutes about a show that's left the airwaves. These include big-time examples like Lost and Cheers along with lesser-known fare like The Middleman and Nathan Barley. Each segment has a guest contributor who loves that series. This group has been really impressive and included Mo Ryan, Chris Gore, and Matt Singer, among others. To provide full disclosure, I did appear on the show to discuss Veronica Mars and Sports Night. However, my expertise pales in comparison to the hosts and superstar guests. My watch list has grown much longer because of these segments, and it's also inspired me to go back and revisit classic shows.

Looking at the covered series, they strike an interesting balance between heavyweights and lighter material like Top Chef and The Amazing Race. It's refreshing to hear sharp conversations that don't dismiss the reality shows as unworthy of attention. While Kate and Simon enjoy digging into the tasks from these well-made competitions, that doesn't mean they can't speak intelligently about key themes in fictional work. I've avoided The Newsroom specifically because they exposed the sexism in Aaron Sorkin's characters. I've been a fan of his other work, but this doesn't sound like a worthy part of his career. The willingness to take down sacred cows when it's required takes this podcast to a higher level. Their "Spotlight of Shame" is a particularly fun segment on shows that are especially bad.

I've also really enjoyed the episodes where Kate and Simon try something different. They've spotlighted an entire season for a currently airing show like Louie, which allows perspective on the collection at the end. Another cool divergence had Capone from Ain't It Cool News chatting with them about horror films and miniseries that aired on TV. It's this willingness to mess with their formula and tweak the set-up that keeps The Televerse from becoming too predictable. There have been times where I'm only regularly watching a few shows that they cover, yet I still download each episode. If you're a TV fan and looking for a podcast to expand your horizons, than this is definitely the show for you. 

March 10, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Like James Bond Again"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

When 58-year-old David O’Leary apparently ruptured his Achilles tendon at the end of last week’s leg, his departure felt certain. How could he possibly continue? The guy is in excellent shape, but this type of injury is no joke. The Amazing Race requires great stamina and speed, and there’s little chance he can skip every physical challenge. This week, the doctors confirm that David ruptured his Achilles and the muscle around it, so they seem doomed. However, crutches and a walking boot allow him to continue. They’re living on borrowed time, but it’s remarkable they can even keep going. John and Jessica help out with the Express Pass, which sends them first to the mat. The young couple wisely sees a solution to their dilemma with handing out the prize. They can honor their original deal without aiding a strong team. David clearly needs the rest after the exhausting leg, but evil Phil’s bad news has him questioning his future. This is a dreaded double leg, and “to be continued” flashes on the screen while David contemplates his fate. While they’ll probably keep racing, it’s clear the odds are stacking up against them with this latest twist.

This episode is packed with action and moves rapidly. After learning more about David’s injury, the teams take a long trip to Christchurch, New Zealand with multiple stops. Chuck and Wynona make an error in the final stage, but it only hurts them a little because of an overnight bunching. Teams are roughing it more this time; they spend one night on the airport floor and another in a tent. Their first task is a jet boat ride, which is apparently the law when you go to New Zealand. Amazingly, there is no bungee jumping this time. The most interesting part of these segments is the formation of several alliances. John and Jessica are working with the roller derby moms and Meghan and Joey, while the hockey players team up with Caroline and Jen. Teams are really focused on alliances this season. Of course, they must remember that they mean almost nothing on The Amazing Race.  Barring a unique case like the purposeful targeting of Jet and Cord in the Unfinished Business installment, they rarely bear fruit. It’s possible that joining another team can just get you lost in New Zealand. Of course, there are worse places to be stuck given past racer experiences.

The Detour options are “Rev It Up” or “Reel It In”, and nearly everyone picks the first choice. That task involves driving a modified car through a series of cones within a specific amount of time. The challenge is that both players must complete it and use a manual transmission. This causes problems for Caroline and Jen, who just learned how to drive a stick recently. David also realizes he can’t do this with his injury, and they quickly switch choices. A note to Idries and Jamil: This is what you do when you realize a task isn’t for you. The other choice involves catching a 12-inch fish from water that seems full of them. Chuck enthusiastically picks this option, which is no surprise. His excitement is impossible not to like. Connor and David don’t share his fun and quickly use the Express Pass. Thankfully, that’s the last we’ll hear about the big decision and its impact. Although they probably wasted it, the choice makes sense given David’s injury. If nothing else, it does win them a trip to Bangkok for arriving first at the mat.

One of the best aspects of this show is the way it delves into the culture of their destinations within the challenges. Unfortunately, driving an off-road vehicle doesn’t feel that authentic to the New Zealand experience. Someone in production really likes car challenges, but they don’t make for thrilling television. More unique is the obstacle course Roadblock, which sends the players through some pretty disgusting spots to grab the clue. The challenge ends with a slide into a lake of manure, which should lead to some foul-smelling traveling in the second half of the leg. Along with traversing the course, players must transport eggs without cracking them. This seems difficult, yet few have problems. Navigational problems send Max and Katie and the hockey players to the back of the pack. There is plenty of shuffling of places, which proves the game design was effective. Even if the first 20 minutes involves several bunchings, the competition is fierce up to the end.

This leg shows just how difficult it is to predict success for teams on The Amazing Race. It’s basically a free-for-all where almost anyone can lose. It’s possible that a strong team like Bates and Anthony could finish last this time. It won’t hurt their chances because of the double leg, but it still shows that no one is safe. Dave and Connor will probably keep racing, but how far can they go? Dave’s perseverance is amazing; he’s faster on crutches than a lot of players are on foot. Still, getting around in New Zealand is much different than in the more difficult environments to come. They’ll need some serious luck and determination to survive very long. Even so, their persistence has brought more excitement to a season that definitely needed it. The competition is starting to heat up, and moving beyond the tourist sectors will certainly lead to more fireworks going forward.

March 9, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "Kill or Be Killed"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

In the past 25 seasons of Survivor, there are several prime examples of hapless tribes. Last season’s Matsing lost the first four challenges and was quickly absorbed into the other two groups. Back in Palau, Ulong never won immunity and remains the standard for the worst pre-merge tribe. They may not be in that company, but the fans are making a bid to enter the conversation. Their only challenge victory was a fluke when Reynold soared past Malcolm at the last minute. This week, they strive mightily to change their fate, but the favorites are a stellar bunch and grab both wins. After Shamar meekly exits with an eye injury, it seems like Reynold or Eddie is heading out. Although they haven’t always shined, keeping them around makes sense. The editing suggests the alliance will hold firm, but even forward-thinking players like Sherri realize the game has changed. Barring a tribal swap, they must change direction or risk having little chance after the merge.

Laura is clearly a fan who understands the importance of numbers. At Tribal Council, she calls out the strategic aspect of maintaining a strong alliance. Even so, she’s extremely thin and has struggled during challenges. Taking her out isn’t a huge risk because Reynold and Eddie still rest at the bottom of the remaining players. Even more importantly, they raise enough doubt to inspire Reynold to play his idol. It’s a logical move from his perspective; why take a chance of going home with the idol? Matt and Mike are clearly running the show now for the fans, and they maintain an edge while building new bonds in the case of a tribal swap. Without her primary allies Shamar and Laura, Sherri must follow the group or risk having no friends left. The power shift is drastic and happens within a single day. Matt takes the initiative and it pays off because he sells the benefits of the stronger guys. Eddie also isn’t a very wise player, so there’s little risk he’ll make a brilliant move. At the episode’s opening, he claims Hope was voted out because she’s the “best-looking” girl on the tribe. This assumption shows that he may not be an expert on strategic game play.

Shamar makes it easy for everyone to dislike him and spends most of his day in the shelter. He seems ready to quit unless they bring him rice, and that’s just the ammunition Reynold and Eddie need. It ends up being moot after vicious sand leads to a corneal abrasion. Take it from someone who’s had this injury; it’s much worse than it sounds. Jeff Probst makes a rare appearance at camp with the medical team, and they determine the big guy must exit the stage. It’s definitely one of the goofier four-episode runs for a Survivor contestant. Reynold finally gets his wish, but there’s still the immunity challenge to consider. Sherri is the killer this time and loses plenty of ground in another top-notch set-up. Players must run across water platforms and then swim to a massive structure. Once they reach the top, they must smash a tile and release a key to a chest back on shore. The ridiculous talents of Erik give the favorites a huge lead right from the start. Reynold makes a valiant effort to save the day with his throwing skills, but the gap is too large to bypass Phillip.

The favorites continue to live the high life and have little tension among the nine (!!!) remaining players. Phillip gives nicknames to Brandon, Erik, and Brenda, so now everyone is part of the “Stealth ‘r’ Us” alliance. The title is definitely misleading. The silliest one is calling Brandon “The Conqueror”, especially if the previews for next week are accurate. The editors clearly have little to show in terms of game play, so they’re sticking with the camera-ready Phillip. The favorites also win the reward challenge and get a visit from a local bushman. The diminutive guy is basically the cutest man imaginable and offers some tips on cooking and setting up the camp. It’s like they’re taking a high-priced vacation at this point. Part of this is the editing, which focuses on the fans during the nasty storms. The favorites are also dealing with similar weather, but that doesn’t match the story being told.

Although the fifth episode seems like the perfect spot for a tribal swap, the producers may let this ride to see if the rout continues. The fans are over matched in challenges; Brenda and Andrea in particular continue to rock all the tasks. Even so, the fans are bound to catch a lucky break at some point. If the producers decide against swapping the tribes, at least one favorite will probably leave in the near future. Of course, that still leaves a significant gap in numbers that could challenge even the smarter fans. In a strange way, it might benefit them to hit the merge way down in the numbers. The favorites at the bottom of their alliance could grab the remaining few and take out the leaders. Of course, that assumes any of the fans make it that far.

March 3, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Loose Lips Sink Ships"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

When did taking the penalty become so common on The Amazing Race? Two episodes into this season, players seem very interested in avoiding tasks. Idries and Jamil barely slip into the water and they’re ready to take a six-hour penalty. Their fear of water and limited swimming abilities make diving for pearls nearly impossible. While their struggles are understandable, they seem far too willing to give up right away. They eventually give the Detour a shot, but it’s their passive approach that raises warning signs. By the time they switch to the other option, the gap is too large. Apparently, picking them to win the race was not a wise idea. They’re hardly the only players who struggle, however. Three teams took a penalty last week, and several others grumble through this leg. Wynona can’t run and doesn’t seem capable of going far into this game. Even some physically strong players aren’t looking solid. Is this the least impressive group in the show’s history?

It’s too early to tell if the initial problems are just hiccups at the start of a more intense competition. Luck also plays a role in the unpredictable results. Dave and Connor are one of the fastest pairs, yet they may be destined for elimination next week. While running to the Pit Stop, Dave apparently ruptures his Achilles tendon. This isn’t the type of injury that goes away in a short time. They finish second and are in a good spot, but it may not matter if Dave can’t continue. On the positive side, Anthony and Bates and Jessica and John maintain their leading spots at the front of the pack. The hockey players seem unfazed by the challenges and casually roll into first place. On the other hand, the young couple spends their time obsessing over the Express Pass and what to do with it. The editors are really trying to push the drama behind this decision, but it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Jessica and John are having fun talking about their unspoken alliance. On this show, that bond probably won’t make a huge difference in the outcome.

The twins’ exit is surprising because of the main pack’s significant edge over the trailing two teams. Even with a bunching at the start, they still have a nearly two-hour lead. That gap quickly disappears at the season’s first Detour, which gives the choice between “Pick a Pearl” and “Take a Trunk”. Once again, the gorgeous waters of Bora Bora are used to full effect. The first option involves diving in the open water to retrieve a group of shells. It’s a “needle in a haystack” task but with the physical component of swimming to grab them. The weak swimmers are going to have a rough time, especially if they’re afraid of the ocean. Pam and Winnie have similar difficulties but hang in there and finish well ahead of the twins. “Take a Trunk” is a silly challenge where teams don a large helmet and set up an underwater picnic. Phil even has some fun describing the task from the ocean floor. It requires less skill but moves slowly because of the burdensome headgear. That helmet is impressive and seems like a good option for visitors who don’t like scuba diving. Max and Katie and Caroline and Jen both take this route when battling at the back of the pack. They say a lot about the rivalry that’s building, but it ends up being a moot point.

After finishing the Detour, teams board a personal watercraft and speed to the island of Motu Tapu. After letting out a big “woo!”, they locate the spot and prepare for the Roadblock. The exception is Pam and Winnie, who blaze off in the wrong direction without reading the map. This is not wise. The Roadblock is a deceptively challenging Polynesian game that happens on stilts. The players must kick a coconut across a beach while staying balanced. Most struggle to find the rhythm, especially Pam while trying to keep them ahead. Once they finish, the next step is locating Phil and a ridiculously attractive greeter somewhere on the island. YouTube hosts Joey and Meghan sprint past Chuck and Wynonna to grab fourth, and the roller derby moms glide into sixth well ahead of the trailing group.

This episode again pushes the racers to their limits, but it’s frustrating because so many have problems with straightforward activities. It’s one thing to struggle while diving repeatedly below the surface, but getting out of the boat should be easy. Players with major fears are cast to set them up to overcome them, but sending them to Bora Bora with almost no swimming skills is problematic. The saving grace is the stunning location, which makes great use of the HD format. Despite the weaknesses, specific moments show that not everyone is ready to quit. Caroline blows by a humbled Max at the Roadblock and shows that last week’s difficulties might be a rare glitch. Despite the gap, those teams roll through the leg and could be serious contenders. Their success offers hope that the competition will heat up in the upcoming weeks.

March 2, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "There's Gonna Be Hell to Pay"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

When Survivor premiered on May 31, 2000, it was set up as a social experiment where people with different backgrounds formed a new community in a remote setting. They were voting each other out, but the episodes involved the basics of getting along and surviving more than strategy. Richard Hatch approached the show differently and treated it like a chess game. This shifted the emphasis towards alliances and outwitting the others, but human interaction was still a key part of it. In recent years, the editing has focused almost solely on game play and tilted dramatically towards the competition. Even so, the players are still living together 24 hours a day and forming social bonds. That old-school feeling dominates this episode, which pits Shamar against virtually everyone on the fans tribe. He takes each questionable statement as an affront and doesn’t get over minor infractions. Will his alliance overlook the difficulties of battling the big guy and keep him around? It’s clear that his vitriol isn’t solely directed towards the trio on the outs. There seems to be a decent guy hidden behind Shamar’s gruff exterior, but living with him every day is probably difficult.

If the fans are going to survive against the favorites, they need to build a united front that sticks together after a tribal swap. Forming a strong alliance is a good move, and keeping Shamar solidifies the alliance of six for that purpose. However, they’re not going to win many challenges if they constantly argue at camp. The favorites are goofing around and letting Phillip provide the entertainment, and these guys are screaming at each other all night. That is not a wise move. At Tribal Council, Shamar reveals his “no talking list” where some tribe mates can’t speak with him. The producers really dropped the ball with the episode title this week. “No talking list” would have been a perfect choice. It’s impossible to unite as a group when Reynold and Eddie are prohibited from speaking to Shamar. Can they make hand signals? Despite all the chaos, Hope is the victim because she joined the wrong alliance at the beginning. Her fate is sealed because Reynold knows the idol is his main way to avoid the vote. Despite his outsider status, this guy probably still lasts longer than several other players. He’s a challenge monster and isn’t a huge strategic threat to flip the game. When Eddie has to explain the benefits of the idol to Reynold, it isn’t a good sign.

The favorites receive limited screen time again, but there are important moments that should pay off in the next few weeks. Malcolm and Corinne search for the hidden immunity idol, and he grabs it in a location that looks exactly the same as the spot for the fans. Are these identical islands straight out of Ocean’s 11? This scene feels very similar to last season, when Malcolm and Denise located the idol pretty early. Although they find it together, he has the control of where it goes. This discovery is even more significant when Andrea forms a group to take out Corinne. Along with Cochran, she recruits Phillip and even Brandon. It’s interesting to see Andrea playing so hard in the opening episodes. She’s determined not to become a pawn in someone else’s plans after playing with Boston Rob. It’s a dangerous game because it places a huge target on her back. When the inevitable tribal swap happens several weeks from now, Andrea needs to hope she ends up with the right people.

The immunity challenge takes place in a gorgeous location and tests swimming skills. The tribes must swim a long way to a cage to free a chest from beneath the surface. Once they release this heavy object, they return it to shore and construct a bridge. The trick is hooking the three pieces with a rope before they can drag the chest to victory. The tribes are dead even and Malcolm and Reynold must face off because it’s the law. However, it’s actually Phillip and Brandon who outdo Eddie and win immunity for the favorites. Shamar spends his time in the water complaining because he needs goggles, which gives him an excuse when they lose. The favorites also win a tarp and several chairs, so their camp is turning into a fancy location.

This episode lacks fireworks, but it’s interesting because of the conflict between strategy and unity among the fans. When Shamar gives away their plans to split the vote to Hope, Laura and Julia seem ready to turn on him. This decision seems rash because they’d be jumping to the bottom of a different alliance of five. Even so, the fans might profit in the long game by ditching Shamar. Sherri benefits the most from keeping around her ally, but some of the others could lose because of the loose cannon. Given all the conflicts in the early days, it seems unlikely that she can keep Shamar as “her Phillip” to the end. Boston Rob benefited greatly on Redemption Island from the lack of a tribal swap during that season. This group is not going to be so lucky.

February 24, 2013

Amazing Race 22, "Business in the Front, Party in the Back"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link

Each new premiere of The Amazing Race brings its own share of questions. Will the cast have exciting characters? Will the challenges stand apart from the formula? Will the producers offer new twists that change the game? All three of these boxes haven’t been checked as often in recent seasons. There have been thrilling challenges and standout players, yet the results have been inconsistent. This new group is filled with lively teams that have their own unique stories, but the challenges dominate the opener. A brutal Roadblock pushes three pairs to take a four-hour penalty and choose a boat race to the Pit Stop. While the risk pays off for two of them, it sends firefighters Matthew and Daniel right to elimination. The well-meaning guys capsize and lose the tense race to the end. The three-team battle is great television, but it still raises questions about the challenge design.

Difficult challenges make the show more exciting, but this one is something else. In a variation of the infamous hay-bale Roadblock from Season 6, players must dig through a huge number of sand castles to find their next clue. Eleven are hidden separately, but there’s a catch that makes it a lot harder. Players must rebuild each sand castle in the hot sun before searching the next one. Along with being a “needle in a haystack” challenge, it’s also a test of endurance. When Max and Katie, Caroline and Jen, and Matthew and Daniel choose to quit, it’s hard to argue with their logic. There’s so much luck involved in finding the clue, so at least skill will decide their fate. As a viewer, watching teams wilt in the heat and dig through sand castles isn’t great television. Even the grisly “meat block” from Season 7 (where three teams also quit) was more engaging. While it tests the players’ stamina, this Roadblock feels more like a gimmick than a thrilling challenge.

The leg begins at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Phil gives his standard explanation, and brief clips describe each team. Easily the most ridiculous intro goes to Chuck and Wynonna; his mullet and obsession with taxidermy are impossible to beat. Nearly every duo has their own hook, which can be uplifting (cancer survivors) or excruciating (wannabe villains). After boarding their “amazing” new Ford Fusions, everyone speeds to the airport for flights to Bora Bora. Five teams get a one-hour edge by catching the first flight and make a pact involving the newest twist. The winner of this leg gets the Express Pass and receives a second Express Pass to give to another team. This move creates an interesting scenario where they benefit by playing nice. While the Express Pass is hardly a guarantee of success, it does provide a safety net for a nasty future challenge. The leaders vow that the winner will give the Express Pass to the second-place one, but that assumes they keep the edge. When John and Jessica grab the victory, it’s almost certain they won’t honor the deal. The editors spend too much time on this arrangement for things to go smoothly.

The first task in Bora Bora is an incredible sky dive from a helicopter above the strikingly clear waters. The HD really pays off with these jumps, which rank among the most impressive in the show’s history. The skydiving is also a Roadblock, which forces the other player to crawl through the sand. This move is interesting because it forces less-capable team members to pull their weight. While luck plays a key role, it’s clear that staying focused doesn’t hurt. Wynona spends the task complaining, but Chuck’s support keeps her on task. On the other hand, Idries struggles mightily and clearly isn’t using the best approach. The twins might not have been a wise pick to win. Even after finding the clue, their boat capsizes far from the shore due to poor construction. They finish eighth, but Idries and Jamil have a rough time. It’s important not to read too much into one leg, however. Plenty of teams have started slowly and found their groove on the way to victory.

Looking at the teams, it’s difficult to say much because of the rapid pace. Introducing everyone and showing a full leg in one hour is a tall order. A memo to CBS: A 90-minute premiere is always a wiser choice. Matthew and Daniel looked like cannon fodder, so their quick exit is not a surprise. In the leading group, Anthony and Bates are obviously strong athletes and they match those expectations by finishing second. It’s also refreshing to see an upbeat team like Pamela and Winnie do well, and it’s impossible to root against David and Connor. The only grating team is Max and Katie, who are clearly trying to play villains. When she talks about having no friends, it rings false. While casting this type of painful team can lead to more drama, it’s less interesting when they’re clearly creating fake personas.

Despite some challenge issues, this is still an exciting premiere that sets up a promising season. The camaraderie among the cast feels natural, and there are only a few bad apples. Bora Bora is stunning and the perfect setting for this type of competition. While it’s tough for a long-running show to stay fresh, it’s clear that the producers are still trying. Even though the challenge doesn’t really work, it shows that they are trying to test the players. The question is whether increasing the difficulty is the best route to better television.

February 23, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "Honey Badger"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

This week gives a clear reminder of the difference between liking Survivor and being an expert player. Even if these really are super fans like Jeff Probst claims, there’s still no substitute for experience. Brandon Hantz may be crazy, but even he would probably do a better job hiding the hidden immunity idol than Reynold. When he discovers this important prize with relative ease, he gives a confessional about making sure the others don’t learn his secret. Of course, this means little when this “bulge in his pants” gets exposed near the camp. Laura shows her smarts by recognizing the idol, but then outs him in a really strange and noncommittal way at Tribal Council. Their inept play makes even the goofball favorites look like geniuses. The final vote is handled well by the dominant group, who understand that while four is less than six, it never hurts to get a larger edge. Allie loses by association and exits quietly after being schooled in the wonders of math. She also doesn’t realize that smart players might want to keep around the really annoying guy at camp.

It’s hard to give Allie too much trouble, however. Reynold clearly thinks he’s running the show for the Gota tribe. He’s right that Shamar is pretty useless at camp and irritating, but the big guy realizes it’s all about the numbers. Sherri wisely calls him her “Phillip” and can use him as a shield. They can always vote him out later if he gets too ridiculous. Shamar may recognize his safe position, but that only goes so far. He probably needs to tone down his behavior if he wants to stick around. Staying in the shelter for 19 hours is a bit excessive. This vote reveals who’s really taking charge in this group. Sherri and Michael are the Survivor experts and have a capable ally in Matt. That trio should be able to maintain control, though Reynold’s immunity idol is always a threat. He’s a strong guy and isn’t going anywhere soon, and a tribal swap is always looming around the corner. The question is whether they can win some challenges to avoid getting picked off when the switch happens. The favorites should won last week too and dominate most of this contest.

The immunity challenge is another impressive one and uses a lot of real estate. Three tribe members are propelled out into the water to dive for nine tubes submerged beneath the surface. The favorites arrange their team well and put some of their best athletes onto the raft. Erik is a challenge monster, and Andrea and Brenda are both strong competitors. On the other hand, Julia and Hope look confused while Sherri tries to gather the rings by herself. Malcolm tries to choke away the challenge again, but Phillip swoops in to save the day and win it. The specialist rides again! The fans are clearly overwhelmed by the occasion and make inexplicable choices right up to the end. Along with taking immunity, the favorites also win a lot of fishing gear. They’re clearly loving life and even let Phillip go crazy and hand out many nicknames. Malcolm can barely keep a straight face while he gets dubbed “the enforcer” by the self-proclaimed CEO of the tribe. Although it’s ridiculous and just feeding Phillip’s ego, it’s also great television. He seems destined for a fall at some point, but his annoyance is secondary to another notorious guy creating greater havoc.

Brandon Hantz should not be playing Survivor. This has nothing to do with his strength or ability to battle the elements. Instead, his mental state is too fragile to handle one vote that doesn’t go his way. He’s ready to channel the blood of his uncle Russell and start poisoning their camp. This isn’t just a metaphorical term either based on the previews for next week. While most of his nastiness comes right after the vote, the calm feelings are short-lived. Cochran perfectly spells out the drastic personality changes that make Brandon so impossible to handle. Like Phillip, he’s also good television, so the producers will give him plenty of screen time. Corinne and Brenda are barely getting any footage; how can they compete with these crazy guys? Clearly, attractive women are no match for insanity. Dawn takes the brunt of Brandon’s anger, and she’s reduced to tears. Next time, I’m guessing she won’t try to explain their votes. When Brandon starts talking about his mad plans, Erik is the only one willing to listen. It’s clear that he isn’t too thrilled by this prospect, either.

Although the numbers are even after two episodes, the fans seem like they’re already self-destructing. They have a six-person majority, but all it takes is a few more Shamar tirades to break up that alliance. The numbers will probably stay close for a while, but this group seems over matched by the returning players. Sherri and Michael almost certainly will get their chance to make their moves, however. Phillip may claim to be channeling Boston Rob, but no one in this game is set to dominate. It should lead to more unpredictable results as the season keeps rolling along. Although the outcome is predictable, this episode has plenty of entertainment and moves quickly. The fans may be stumbling through the early stages, but the “fans vs. favorites” format is working great so far. There are so many different ways this game could go, and unhinged players will keep the chaos happening right to the end.

February 17, 2013

Amazing Race 22 Preview

This preview was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link

Can The Amazing Race still be surprising? With the long-running reality competition entering its 22nd season, the chance for major changes seems unlikely. There will be unpredictable moments, but the overall structure remains the same. The producers have tried to throw in new twists to liven up the game, but they’re one-time events that rarely make a dent. For example, last season upped the ante to $2 million, but only for the team that won the opening leg. Once Abbie and Ryan left the game, that move disappeared from memory.

Even without structural changes, there’s still plenty to like with this show. It’s consistently entertaining and sends its 11 teams through difficult challenges all over the world. The set-up is so good that it’s impossible not to wish for the best from every season. So much of that success depends on the cast, and predicting whether they’ll provide good television is tricky. Calling this the “most diverse cast ever”, host Phil Keoghan has given his normally glowing assessment of the cast. They don’t feel that much different from the usual group, but there are some interesting teams within the mix.

Here are basic descriptions of each pair based on the limited material provided by CBS:

Idries and Jamil: These guys are not only identical twins but are also OB/GYN physicians. They’re 36 and in great shape, so they could be a physical force. Jamil is a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corp, and Idries loves Tae Kwon Do. This strength and their fandom of the show could give them an edge.

Max and Katie: In less-exciting news, these recent newlyweds seem ready to be ridiculous TV. This may not be a good thing. They both cite Rush Limbaugh in their bios, which is not a positive trait. Max in particular wants to be a villain and is really proud of himself.

Mona and Beth: These roller-derby moms are tough, yet they’ll be traveling a bit further than around the rink this time. The good friends are convinced that roller derby will help them on the race, which may be a stretch.

Anthony and Bates: Let the gloves fly! These brothers are former professional hockey players who also own a bar. Bates actually played in the NHL, and both have plenty of travel experience. They’re obviously strong guys, so the question is whether they’ll have the intangibles to stay ahead.

Chuck and Wynona: Switching gears, this Alabama married couple are in their late ‘40s and fit a certain mold for the show. Chuck has possibly the greatest mullet in reality television history, and he also dabbles in taxidermy. Wynona’s a cosmetologist who says he reminds her of MacGyver. They’re destined to be great television, but might not last very long.

David and Connor: The heart-warming story of this cast is this father and son, who are both cancer survivors. David is 21 and races for a Live Strong team, which feels unfortunate given the recent news. His father may be 37 years older, but he looks very fit and could make them a contender.

Caroline and Jen: These friends both play in the country band Stealing Angels, but that isn’t even their best hook. Caroline is a direct descendant of Daniel Boone, and Jen is the granddaughter of John Wayne. That’s pretty awesome. They’re also young and good-looking, but that combination hasn’t led to race success lately. Maybe they can use the spirits of their formidable ancestors to grab an edge.

Joey and Meghan: In another stunt casting, these “friends” are YouTube hosts in their early 20s. He compares himself to Ryan Seacrest, while she cites Zooey Deschanel. The question with this type of casting is how close they really are. They may avoid bickering since they aren’t a couple, but are they here to win?

Pamela and Winnie: These 29-year-old best friends live in Los Angeles and are both terrified of bathrooms, which could make their journey into third-world countries a harrowing experience. However, they seem like nice people and have been friends for a long while, so they could do very well.

John and Jessica: This dating couple has the look of many past teams that have thrived. Jessica has completed two Boston marathons, so she definitely has the endurance to go far. John spends a lot of time sitting down in his “life of hacking and entrepreneurship”, so he might not have similar skills. Even so, it’s hard to bet against this type of team.

Matthew and Daniel: These South Carolina firefighters need a lot of toughness for their job, but they don’t feel like strong contenders. They’ve done little traveling, so they fit within the “fish out of water” mold of fan favorites like Mark and Bopper. Still, it will be a big surprise if they come even close to that level of fun or success.

Now it’s time for some fearless predictions about the upcoming season:

First team eliminated: Matthew and Daniel
Most hated team (audience and other teams): Max and Katie
Most likable team: Pamela and Winnie
Million-dollar winners: Idries and Jamil

Last season, the Beekmans struggled throughout the race but found their way to steal the million dollars. Stronger-looking teams fell by the wayside and couldn’t defeat them in the final challenge. Getting the right task at the perfect time is so important to this competition. This unpredictability makes it difficult to pick a winner. Idries and Jamil are smart, positive guys who appear to have the right tools to go far. Whether this actually happens is a question that’s impossible to answer at this point. Regardless of the outcome, The Amazing Race should continue to provide consistent entertainment for a long time to come.

February 16, 2013

Survivor Caramoan, "She Annoys Me Greatly"

This recap was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link.

For their second version of “Fans vs. Favorites”, the Survivor producers are clearly going for memorable television with their returning players. There are few examples of people who dominated their original seasons, and only one made the Final Tribal Council. A surprising choice is Francesca, who was voted out first in the Redemption Island season. She was good television and clearly knows the game, so bringing her back is an exciting change of pace. Strangely, Francesca enters this new season with a reputation as a strategist despite her limited time. Her former tribe mate Phillip is also back with her again, so the risk is high for a quick exit. Despite the dangers of repeating her prior difficulties, she falls into the same traps. Arriving with a big chip on her shoulder, she plays too hard in the early days and receives the same cruel fate. A 6-4 vote sends her packing once again right at the start. She’s intelligent and doesn’t deserve the reputation as the worst Survivor player ever, but that label’s now been certified in the show’s long history.

An interesting counterpoint is Malcolm, who’s a mystery to everyone because his season aired after this filming. He clearly recognizes the danger and immediately warms himself up to the entire group. He also sits back and doesn’t strategize much (at least on camera), which is wise because he’s an unknown. Andrea and Francesca are playing the hardest from the start, and this puts them both in jeopardy. Despite their status as experienced players, this group clearly hasn’t mastered the strategy. The exceptions are Dawn and Cochran, who quietly sit back and choose the best option for their long-term success. In a large group of 10, having an ally to trust is a key factor in surviving the early chaos. Their understated approach is going to keep the target off their backs and towards more aggressive players like Andrea and Phillip. Wild cards like Brandon can’t stay this contained for long, so moving away from his group is another smart choice. Even so, the scrambling right before Tribal Council shows that this tribe is a long way from reaching a consensus.

The show begins with the introductions of the favorites as they exit a helicopter to the smitten fans. It’s clear that most have no idea who some of them are, but Cochran and Dawn get big receptions. Brandon is described as “Russell Hantz’s nephew”, so it’s clear that he’ll never escape that bruiser’s shadow. They battle it out in an opening water challenge with plenty of tackling. Malcolm even loses his pants to win a point, which recalls a topless Sugar running to victory in the opening Heroes vs. Villains challenge. His prospects in the game are a bit higher than hers, however. The favorites seem united and enthusiastic, but that camaraderie is not going to last. One of the most prominent fans is Shamar, a very large marine who served in Iraq. His decision to sit back and not help with the shelter seems disastrous, but his fire-making skills compensate quickly. His choice to step up at the last minute and save the day is actually pretty brilliant for a short-term win. They struggle at first to get rolling, but the fans actually seem pretty capable at setting up the camp.

Starting too hard in Survivor is dangerous, but there are some basic strategies that anyone should use the right way. An important one is having a strong understanding of basic math. When a tribe has 10 people, building an alliance of four is no guarantee of dominance. This mistake is compounded when the other players see the connection and band up against the foursome. It isn’t rocket science! The self-proclaimed “best-looking” duo of Eddie and Hope immediately bond, while Reynold and Allie decide it’s wise to hook up on the first night next to everyone. If these four make the end of the game, it will be shocking. Reynold is athletic and smart, but he also cites one of the reasons for choosing Allie is because she isn’t the most attractive girl. Even if it works for him, this is still icky reasoning. Most of the other fans receive limited screen time, but they seem more likely to do well. Michael is forming solid relationships with everyone, and even bearded Matt seems to understand the game. Sherri also looks like a force who’s in the right position in this tribe.

The immunity challenge takes place in an impressive structure that stands four stories above the ground. The favorites grab a significant lead thanks to superhuman feats from Erik. This changes dramatically when Reynold proves his talents in throwing sand bags. He’s clearly had some practice at some local bars. He comes from behind and passes Malcolm to take the win. Phillip seems likely to exit, but no one seems that excited to get rid of the volatile guy. This makes sense because he’s unlikely to form real bonds with other players. The likable strategists are going to be a target if they don’t form the right alliances. Both Francesca and Andrea do plenty of legwork to solidify their position, but it’s tougher within such a large group. Even with some last-minute flips from Erik, Brandon, and Brenda, it still isn’t enough to change Francesca’s fate. This 90-minute premiere moves swiftly and has plenty of fun moments. Even with some dim-witted fans, there are enough solid players to make for an exciting season. Francesca’s exit is assured when the editors show her comments about “eating a rock” if she goes out, but it wouldn’t have been shocking to see Andrea leave. This unpredictability should lead to plenty of surprises and thrills going forward.

February 10, 2013

Survivor Caramoan Preview

This preview was written for Sound on Sight, an excellent online spot for great writing on film and television. You can check out the original post at this link

In his interviews during the very entertaining Survivor: Philippines season last fall, Jeff Probst claimed that the next installment would be even better. While this could just be an attempt to draw viewers, it still raises the intrigue for the show’s 26th chapter. The hook is the return of 10 past contestants for a second "Fans vs. Favorites" battle. It repeats the season 14 format from Micronesia. The returning players dominated that game and took the top three spots, with Parvati winning the top prize. The fans were not good players and star struck during the early going. This time, the show has pulled “favorites” almost solely from recent seasons. The familiar group is skewed towards craziness over stellar game play and includes few players who dominated their original seasons.Thankfully, everyone has appeared once previously, so there are no Hantz-like characters that will dominate the screen time.

The returning players are a diverse bunch that crosses the spectrum between sweet and insane. Malcolm comes right back after missing a chance for the million dollars in the Philippines. No one has seen his season, so he has the benefit of being mysterious. However, the memory of Russell making the end in Heroes vs. Villains may hurt Malcolm’s chances. If he survives the first few votes, Malcolm could make the end. There’s also one returning fan from the Micronesia season that is known for a stupid move of giving away immunity. Erik may have a better chance because of that reputation and being likable. On the other hand, Brandon returns with the same mistake on his resume but doesn’t seem as self-aware. He was a maddening player and not one of the better parts of the South Pacific game, but the producers clearly want fireworks. That’s also the reason they brought back Phillip, a self-proclaimed “specialist” who made the end on Redemption Island by acting crazy. The last male returnee is Cochran, and it will be exciting to see how he adapts. His big move changed the game in his first shot but ended up dooming his chances. The problem is that super fans don’t always do well in their second attempts; Rob Cesternino is a perfect example.

Several of the strongest players are returning women, who should be able to take control over guys like Brandon. It’s refreshing to see the return of Andrea, who has both the smarts and physical skills to go far. She played under the radar on Redemption Island and could do the same thing again. A player with similar skills but a bigger target is Brenda, who had a good run in the Nicaragua season. She’ll need a strong alliance to avoid an early exit. Another interesting surprise is Francesca, who was the first player voted out of Redemption Island when Boston Rob considered her a threat. She’s the definite wild card. In a similar mold is Corinne, who made a lot of enemies with her outspoken play in Gabon. It’s hard to know how she’ll do because this is such an odd crowd. The potential for chaos is very high. The final returnee is Dawn, easily one of the nicest players of recent seasons. She is strong enough in challenges to avoid an early boot and could last for a while.

While the favorites are familiar characters, it’s so hard to judge the new group of fans. The first question is how much they truly know the show given the producers’ knack for casting recruits. Also, the online bios and videos say little to truly indicate who will win. The reason they may do better is the fact that returning players usually go a long way. If the newbies recognize the threat and ignore their adoration for their idols, it might be different than the first version. One guy who seems destined for a quick exit is Matt, who’s most notable for having a giant beard. He’ll likely stand out in a very young group. The women also seem more capable in this tribe, particularly race-car driver Julia and pre-law student Hope. Guys like Reynold and Eddie seem pretty arrogant on first glance, which isn’t a great trait in this current Survivor era. One intriguing player is Shamar, an Iraq War Veteran who should have few problems with the elements. On the other hand, his bio frequently mentions playing with honor, which means he might not be ready to backstab the other players.

Here are some fearless predictions for the new season that will certainly be wrong:

First person voted out: Matt
Most painful television (again): Brandon
Favorite who might surprise: Corinne
Fan who might surprise: Michael
Million-dollar winner: Andrea

This season is destined to provide ridiculous moments given the goofballs that are returning. The question is whether they will take advantage of the fans or get stuck in petty fights. Picking a winner is difficult because there are so many unknowns. How long will the tribes remain in their original formats? Will injuries shift the dynamics of the game? Andrea is the best choice because she’s so likable and won’t fall victim to the early boots for strength. She already played with Phillip, so having this disruptive guy on her side is wise. If a fan wins the game, Michael is a strong possibility. He mentions Cirie and Rob Cesternino as similar past contestants, and they’ve shown the right way to play. His humble approach and understanding of the game could take him far. The two-hour premiere airs February 13 and should give plenty of time to get acquainted with the new players. Regardless of what happens, it’s shaping up to be another classic season.

January 23, 2013

Man of the West (1958)

This review was written for Sound on Sight as part of their sharp and informative Westerns Month. You can check out the original post on this film at this link

Anthony Mann directed more than 40 films but is mostly known for his remarkable collaborations with Jimmy Stewart during the 1950s. These five westerns aren’t as well-known as the genre legends but match them in quality and depth. In Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur in particular, Mann finds a surprising darkness in Stewart that Hitchcock would later use to great effect in Vertigo. This intensity carries over into his 1958 picture Man of the West, which provides the stern Gary Cooper with the chance to flex his muscles. Although he spends much of the story quietly observing the action, it’s clear there’s anger lurking beneath the surface. Adapted from Will C. Brown’s novel The Border Jumpers, this spare production drops a small group of characters into the wasteland and asks them where they stand. The Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men) screenplay arranges them in clear dichotomies that match the genre standards. It isn’t the most subtle approach, yet there’s a vitality that makes it a riveting experience.

Cooper stars as Link Jones, a reformed outlaw who’s gone the straight and narrow path. He acknowledges the horrible past deeds but feels he’s grown up and set aside his violent ways. It’s clear that Clint Eastwood modeled William Munny in Unforgiven after Link. He’s settled down in the aptly named Good Hope with his wife and two kids. His trip outside of those friendly confines involves the gentle task of hiring a teacher for that community. He’s representing Good Hope to the outside world, which says a lot about his return to grace. It’s clear that Link isn’t comfortable in civilization, particularly when he boards a train. He awkwardly shies away from the smoke and doesn’t even fit inside the seats. Cooper’s lanky build and unique gait make him stand out in any situation, and it’s particularly evident in the changing world. When outlaws raid the train, Link confusedly responds to the danger and takes a blow to the head. He doesn’t realize it, but this robbery starts the journey back into his past in more ways than one.

Link’s companions in exile are con man Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and singer Billie Ellis (Julie London), and neither is suited for the wilderness. Link must lead them to safety, but that won’t be easy so far from the closest settlement. They reach his former home, but the forces there may be more dangerous than anything in the wild. The reunion with his uncle Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) is tricky because they departed on bad terms. He’s a father figure to Link but represents the unruly nastiness he left behind. Link’s been trying to become civilized, yet he can’t shake the wild old devil completely. It’s clear that Dock has a blind spot about his former mentee and cares for him like a son. Playing a guy much older than his 46 years, Lee J. Cobb chews the scenery as Dock but reveals caring underneath. He may want to watch the world burn, but it isn’t the same without his partner in crime. Link recognizes that he’s dead if he doesn’t play the role, yet it isn’t a convincing performance. His eyes tell the truth and show the kindness that remains, but even that could be fleeting.

The story really takes off after Mann sets up the conflict between Link and Dock’s wilder associates. Coaley (Jack Lord) has no use for this steely veteran and wants him gone. Along with threatening his spot in the gang, Link is protecting Billie. This leads to a surprising moment where Coaley forces her to strip while holding a knife to Link’s throat. Although it stops before she completes this demeaning act, it’s clear that Coaley was ready to do a lot more. This ever-present menace hangs above the rest of the movie and connects it to Mann’s best work. Although London does a convincing job, her character gets a raw deal in the final act. She’s pushed to the side and can only pine for Link while he fights Dock’s goons. There’s also a quick scene where it’s implied that Dock raped her. It’s never clearly expressed, but Link’s anger towards his uncle says it all. There’s no place for order or decency in this wild land, which puts everyone who can’t fight in jeopardy.

Man of the West ends in a ghost town with Link having a classic Western showdown with Dock’s goons. The deserted landscape is the perfect location for this type of battle, which will be familiar to genre fans. The surprise is a brutal fistfight between Link and Coaley that precedes those shootouts. If there was any doubt that Link still had a violent side, it’s put to rest in this scene. A few moments before letting loose, Cooper grits his teeth and cleverly reveals what’s about to happen. By goading Coaley into the fight, he keeps the others at bay and can take out his primary rival. Along with some vicious punches, Link rips off the guy’s clothes and avenges Billie in the process. This moment could feel like a victory against the bad guys, but there’s a hint of tragedy in this return to violence. It’s unfortunate that Mann steps back with the strangely ineffective ending. It slightly nullifies the resurrection of Link’s ugly side that still remains. He may strive for a happy ending in Good Hope, but setting aside the madness may not be so easy in this thankless world.