Who Should Win American Idol 2018?

I called this season’s American Idol Top 14 the strongest field of competitors in years, just a month ago, but on the dawn of finale night, it seems I may have spoken too soon. This isn’t all the contestants’ fault, necessarily. This extremely truncated season robbed these singers the opportunity to develop into more mature artists, comfortable on the Idol stage. Over the years, we’ve been privileged to witness singers’ transformations, from aspiring auditioners, to bona fide stars. But now, growth arcs are gone, and we’ve barely gotten to know these kids.

We’re left with three (blonde, white) performers who still have so much room to improve. We have Caleb Lee Hutchinson, the blandest of bland country guys, Maddie Poppe, an acoustic singer-songwriter with cool musical taste, and country queen Gabby Barrett, whom Vulture’s Louis Virtel affectionately called “Very Underwood.”

My American Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, has joined me to share who should win this 16th season of Idol and our favorite performance of the season.

Jonathan Amores on Who Should Win: Maddie Poppe

Maddie Poppe has such an excellent gift: She is able to uncover the soul of a song and imbue a performance with genuine emotion and moving vulnerability. She has delivered the most consistently delightful performances, leaning into her crystal-clear vocals and multi-instrumented abilities. It’s as if each week, she reveals a new song from her personal concert set-list full of eclectic song choices from Simon and Garfunkle’s “Homeward Bound” to Melanie’s “Brand New Key.”

Speaking of song choice, I think Maddie deserves the crown based on one night alone. Top 10 Night was Disney night and I was hoping that these contestants would pick bold, out-of-the-box songs, like “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” or “When She Loved Me.” Instead, we sat through expectedly banal performances of “The Circle of Life” and “Colors of the Wind.” Maddie, however, stood out with a ukulele-fied “Bare Necessities.” For that audacious song choice alone, Maddie Poppe should win American Idol.

I think that Gabby will actually win the season, and I wouldn’t be upset if that happened. She would be a worthy winner and I’m sure ABC would be thrilled with an Underwood-lite champion. Just as long as it’s not yet another White Guy With Guitar winner.

Jonathan Yu, On Who Should Win: Gabby Barrett

The odds are supposedly in her favor to become just the 6th woman to win American Idol in 16 seasons, and for good reason. This girl can SANG. She already commands the stage like a seasoned performer with incredible control over her voice. Her repertoire of audition songs maybe seem to overlap entirely with Carrie Underwood’s discography, but I actually think that the combination of nasal and grit in her voice is more effective on songs that lean more soulful – her rendition of “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin from Hollywood Week is probably my favorite bit of singing from the entire competition.

Here’s to hoping that she pulls out a showstopper performance this week, more in the veins of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” than “I Hope You Dance.” To be honest, though, I will be almost just as happy if Maddie “Consistent” Poppe gets the crown. Just please, dear God, not Caleb.

Jonathan Amores, On His Favorite Performance: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me”

When recalling this season’s performances, a handful have stood out. In terms of pure vocals, I’d choose Jurnee’s gorgeous Showcase performance of “Never Enough.” For sheer joy and surprise, I’d choose Michael J. Woodard’s “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret. Instead, I chose a performance that embodies this new era of Disneyfied American Idol: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me,” the Oscar-winning song from Coco.

Michelle was far from the best vocalist, but she had the strongest stage presence. She knew how to work a room, electrify an audience, and perform. The judges continually urged Michelle to sing in both English and Spanish (Michelle is originally from Venezuela), and in this performance, she delivers in spades. There’s so much joy in this performance and she lights up the stage from the first note, sprinkling in just the right amount of theatrics. Michelle had a rough run on Idol, but she left the competition on a high note.

Jonathan Yu, On His Favorite Performance: Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good”

There were many performances that I considered picking for my favorite performance of the season – Jurnee’s “Never Enough,” Dennis Lorenzo’s “This Woman’s Work,” or Michael J. Woodard’s “Beauty and the Beast” come to mind, but in the end, I decided to pick Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good.” She may have peaked a bit early with this performance, but it will forever be one of the most important performances on Idol ever for me.

I thought I had seen it all with Idol, but a drag queen crushing her competition unapologetically in a semifinals round, bringing Katy Perry literally to her knees, still brought a tear to my eyes. The song fit her over-the-top vocals (that range!!) and persona (that braid!!) perfectly. Even if she never quite lived up to expectations the rest of the season, I am still thankful that Idol gave a platform for a performer such as her. ❤

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It’s my American Idol Ranking of 2018’s Top 14! WIG.

Whether we like it or not, American Idol is back. And dare I say, better than ever?

After spending just less than two years off the air, this reality television mainstay is giving us the strongest field of competitors, or at least, most interesting, in years.

I’ve written in the past about why Nicki Minaj and Harry Connick, Jr. were wonderful additions Idol’s judging panel, but I truly think that Katy Perry is a perfect Idol judge. She understands the silliness of American Idol, and has given us plenty of fun, memorable moments so far. And yet, Katy is able to give thoughtful critiques, not just on the quality of the vocals, but on the quality of the performance. She’s embraced the show’s original subtitle, “the search for a superstar,” and has provided tailored insight into successful stardom along the way. Katy seems to genuinely care about these young singers and gosh darn it, I’m into this show again! It’s a shame that it’ll be over in just 5 short weeks.

Here’s how I’m ranking Season ‘s Top 14, from most to least favorite contestant.

Jurnee: Jurnee is an 18-year-old whose wife is serving in the military. She’s my American Idol, and unlike my favorites from seasons past, she could actually win this whole thing (Sorry, Majesty Rose!). She exudes an effortless cool and an awesome control of her instrument. Her voice is so clear, so strong, with beautiful shades of vulnerability. Plus Jurnee’s song choices of The Greatest Showman’s “Never Enough” and (to a lesser extent) Pitch Perfect’s “Flashlight” show that she has shrewd ability to choose songs that haven’t been sung to death on reality television, yet are contemporary enough to make an impact. Actually, I’d like to give props to all the contestants this season for picking fresh songs to perform. Good job, young people!

Ada Vox: Ada Vox is serving us vocal explosion eleganza. She is a consummate entertainer and holds us in the palm of her hand with every vocal flourish. It’s honestly amazing how far we’ve come on American Idol. Adam Lambert didn’t come out publicly until after his season ended, and here we are, nine years later and a drag queen is slaying the each performance and reading all the other contestants for filth. (Yes, I’ve finally started watching Drag Race this year.) Long live Queen Ada!

Gabby Barrett: Gabby is armed with radio-ready vocal chops and an understated confidence. It’s encouraging that Gabby has ventured outside of her country lane, with a performance of Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” earlier in the competition. Gabby’s performances tend to start slower, then build to a raucous finale, so here’s hoping in future performances that she can electrify throughout a song.

Maddie Poppe: Of all the contestants, Maddie has the strongest handle on who she is as an artist. It’s refreshing to watch her lean so far into what makes her distinct. She’s confident enough, that she doesn’t need to set off vocal pyrotechnics at every turn. And as evident in her original song performance in Hollywood Week’s solo week, Maddie can just be herself.

Jonny Brenns: If I were ranking these contestants solely by how much I enjoy the timbre of their voices, Jonny would probably be at the top. His voice is so smooth and syrupy. It’s a comforting warm blanket. It’s more synonyms and metaphors that describe his rich tone. As it stands, Jonny lacks apparent charisma, confounded by his gangly 6′ 5″ frame, but his boy-next-door-ness and massive feel-good support from his family should propel him far into the competition.

Marcio Donaldson: There’s no doubt about it: Marcio brings the capital D Drama to the stage. His velvet tones paired with his pliable facial expressions, are well-suited for television, giving the sense that he is really FEELING the music. His beautiful baby in the audience signifies just how much this opportunity means to him, and as a result, he wears his heart on his sleeve as each note pours through his soul. Not every note has been perfect, but Marcio’s passion definitely shines through.

Michael J. WoodardMichael has surprised and delighted us with his left-field song choices, from Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time,” to Alanis Morissette’s “You Outta Know,” to The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers.”His giddyness and enthusiasm is certainly infectious, and his voice has a rich, complex tone, but outside of his quirky song selection, who is Michael? Hopefully he’ll stick around long enough for him to uncover more delightful layers of his artistry.

Michelle Sussett: Bilingual performances have appeared several times before on Idol, starting with Karen Rodriguez’s “Hero” back in Season 10, but they’re truly never gelled. Enter Michelle Sussett, who brings the dynamics and theatrics to the stage, with some of the weaker vocals of the Top 14. I just appreciate that she just gives us more and more (I, for one, *loved* Naima Adedapo’s electricity). Michelle’s antics are all over the place, but hopefully, she’ll be able to raise the bar on her singing to match her stage presence.

Dennis Lorenzo: Dennis is a smooth operator, with a beautiful upper register. While his solo performance of MAGIC!’s “Rude” was a truly awful song choice (it screams one of those performances where all the contestant can say afterwards is that they “had fun”), but thankfully, his celebrity duet with Allen Stone, was an intimate, smoky, and cool affair. More of the latter, please!

Mara Justine: At just 16 years old, is Mara Justine too young to be competing on American Idol? I’m going to say yes. Her voice is undeniably powerful, but she reads as a teenager merely performing what she thinks a great singer should be. It comes as no surprise that she competed on America’s Got Talent at the age of 11. Yes, she does have massive talent, but it’s too raw and too overly-polished at the same time.

Cade Foener: Cade has everything together. The enviable style and swagger. The rocker hair. The passionate guitar playing. The vocal strain that gives his performances a gritty air of authenticity. Cade’s experience fronting a rock band certainly gives him a step up from his fellow contestants, but I’m just not energized by his performances.

Catie Turner: The very first audition of this American Idol revival featured a fresh-faced Catie Turner and we have been force-fed her self-proclaimed awkward antics ever since. The juxtaposition of her mature vocals and idiosyncratic personality was barely interesting the first time, and has now become tiresome. Her over-exposure has never charmed me. I give up, Idol producers; I have Catie fatigue. I’m done.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson: What’s that? It’s mandated that we need a male country singer in the competition? Ok, fine. We could do worse than the solid, if not uninspiring, Caleb.

Garrett Jacobs: WHY? Why on Earth is Garrett in this competition? He’s been called a “heartthrob” over and over by the judges, but don’t we already have Jonny and Cade? Each person in the Top 14 brings something different to the table, while Garrett offers up… what, exactly? Messy-to-decent vocals? The ability to hold a guitar? Garrett had the worst performance of the Top 24, and yet he advanced over the talented Alyssa Raghu, Effie Passero, AND Shannon O’Hara? I demand a recount.

My Ranking of the 2018 Oscar Best Picture Nominees

Take me back to Call Me By Your Name‘s warm Italian summer of 1983. I devoured André Aciman’s sun-kissed pleasure of a novel early last year and I was looking forward to Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation with eager anticipation. The film was everything I had hoped for and more. Call Me By Your Name is an intoxicating dive into the thrill, ache, lust and heartbreak of first love. A sweeping primal dance between the inner and outer lives of awakening and desire.

It’s a refreshing gift to watch a story of gay love unfold where the villain isn’t crippling self-hatred, devastating disease, or homophobic violence. We’re free to just be and exist with these characters. At the same time, there are signifiers of potential ruin and as an audience, we’re conditioned to wait for the other shoe to drop. Instead, the enemy of Call Me By Your Name is time. The movie speaks beautifully to the delay of queerness, how queer people typically aren’t able to act on their feelings at the same time as the sexual discovery of their heterosexual peers.

Timothée Chalamet delivers a knockout performance as the 17-year-old Elio, every fiber of his physicality bursting with curiosity and confusion. As the heart and soul of the film, he is my pick for Best Actor by a mile. His magnetic attraction to Armie Hammer’s handsome and seemingly aloof Oliver develops at a restrained pace, a yearning bubbling just under the surface, until the floodgates of infatuation are no loner able to contain him.

Call Me By Your Name‘s journey of discovery certainly has moments of pure gay wish-fulfillment. Towards the end of the movie, Michael Stuhlbarg, as Elio’s father, delivers a stunning monologue so full of empathy and humanity, an appeal to his son to accept both love and pain, that it left me breathless. (Stuhlbarg’s lack of an Oscar nomination is the season’s biggest disappointment.) Soon after, Elio’s final moments left me a silent, emotional wreck. Call Me By Your Name instantly became my favorite film of 2017.

Lady Bird considers that paying close attention to something is an act of love. You can truly feel the love and compassion Greta Gerwig has for all of her complex characters in her first outing as a solo director. Not only is it wonderful to see all this affection focused on the life of a teenage girl, but we’re able to feel the perspectives of both generations, of Saoirse Ronan’s Christine, aka “Lady Bird,” and her mother Marion, played by marvelous Laurie Metcalf (how unfortunate she hasn’t gotten the awards recognition she deserves). This is both a coming-of-age film and a gracefully realized examination of parenting, as these women so desperately want to be seen by each other.

The early 2000s NorCal high school setting and theatre kid experiences rang so true for me. While many of my peers deeply related to the relationship between mother and daughter, I was moved most by the arc of Lady Bird and her first boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges). Lady Bird succeeds because its lovingly crafted specificity is key to universality. Again, love and attention. The more I think about what worked so delightfully about Lady Bird, the more I fall in love with it.

Special shout-out to Beanie Feldstein’s buoyant charisma as Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie. These two share my favorite dialogue from all the nominated pictures:

JULIE: Ms. Patty assigned you a role, by the way. You just never showed up to claim it.
LADY BIRD: What role?
JULIE: The Tempest.
LADY BIRD: There is no role of The Tempest.
JULIE: It is the titular role.

If I were casting an Oscar ballot, I would vote Get Out for Best Picture in a heartbeat. No other film speaks so urgently and directly to these troubled times we live in. Part racial satire, part societal thriller, Jordan Peele’s audacious directorial début captures a vital American horror story. Peele masterfully explores real-life anxieties and dives into both the absurdity and menace, illuminating along the way, hypocrisies in performative wokeness. I’m thrilled with the awards recognition of Daniel Kaluuya’s complex performance, as his character struggles for a sense of normalcy in an increasing abnormal environment, from being black in a white space, from blackness simply existing. Get Out will leave an enduring impression in our pop culture psyche long after this awards season is over.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a gorgeous film. Every frame is exquisitely rendered in lush and opulent blues and greens. The radiant Sally Hawkins, as the mute janitor, Elisa, lures you into her world with a silent tenacity, as she races to save her fish-man love, with whom she connects so profoundly.

Elisa’s friends on the fringes (Richard Jenkins and a woefully underused Octavia Spencer) have touches of inner lives, elevating them from mere thankless sidekick tropes. Jenkins, as a lonely gay man, gives an especially nuanced performance. The Shape of Water is told from an artist’s point of view, framing the story as a fable. Though a feeling of inevitability permeates throughout, there’s enough clever originality that satisfies like a warm wave of emotion. Truth be told, I’m done with the “love letter to Old Hollywood” for a while.

I’m not fond of war movies, and I’ll never forgive the Oscars for making me watch Hacksaw Ridge. Much to my surprise, I was thoroughly entertained by Dunkirk. Whereas Hacksaw Ridge was at once both achingly saccharine and punishingly cruel, Dunkirk was thankfully neither. Though the film features a sea of same-looking brown-haired Brits, emphasizing the anonymity of war, I still managed to care for the survival of these soldiers, even without knowing much about them. Deep in the chaos of war, Dunkirk makes no time for clichéd backstories and stock characterizations, unlike other war movies.

Director Christopher Nolan has crafted an immersive war epic that celebrates the perseverance of the human spirit, yet doesn’t shy away from showing a primal fear. Through a clever storytelling structure that weaves timelines and narratives, this harrowing rescue mission is depicted on a scale both epic and personal, claustrophobic and cavernous. Dunkirk was such a technical achievement that Harry Styles wasn’t much of a distraction.

An exquisitely delicate film by Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread, chronicles the tense emotional life of an obsessive artist (Daniel Day-Lewis) who meets his match in his muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps). Their passionate love is a twisted and destructive duet, and while I admit I’m tired of meticulous creative geniuses (who are almost always white men), Alma’s keen resolve keeps the story on its toes. Their relationship weaves in surprising directions, but I could only enjoy Phantom Thread at a cool distance.

On paper, The Post screams Oscar excellence: a Steven Spielberg-directed movie about the true story of Washington Post journalists rushing to expose government flaws, starring American treasures Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Onscreen, The Post was… fine. It was more impressive for its timeliness and political relevance than anything else. Even so, there were sequences when film was too heavy-handed with its modern parallels; the shot of Streep as Katherine Graham, the first female publisher of an American newspaper, walking out of a courthouse among admiring female onlookers comes to mind.

Honestly, I was more entertained, if not a bit distracted, by the seemingly endless cavalcade of television stars. Carrie Coon! Sarah Paulson! Zach Woods! And on and on and on. It’s only when the Pentagon Papers are actually acquired, maybe halfway through, does the movie actually pick up steam. Historical spoiler alert: We know that the Post does publish the Pentagon Papers, so the sweeping climax of Streep in a kaftan making that history-altering decision just sits there, no matter how awesome the kaftan.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is my anti-Lady Bird; the more I think about it, the less and less I like it. On its surface, it’s a thrilling rollercoaster, racing from searing drama to black comedy and back, featuring Frances McDormand’s visceral and raw performance. Her portrayal of a grieving mother who turns her agony into a steadfast rage is worthy of acclaim, but boy, is the film that surrounds her problematic AF.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards feels like it’s made by someone who isn’t acquainted with the place they’re operating in. The way race is handled in this contemporary rural setting just doesn’t work. Unlike in Peele’s Get Out, McDonagh doesn’t have a coherent understanding of American racism. Rockwell’s violent and racist cop, who has tortured a black man in custody in the past, gets a redemption arc that is completely misguided and unearned. Rockwell is admirable in the role, but his character’s transformation is unjustified. It’s also extremely disappointing to see black characters, both onscreen and off, as merely plot devices and ciphers.

So much more of Three Billboards doesn’t come together, including the aforementioned tonal whiplash, unexplored consequences, a plethora of narrative coincidences and false endings, and whatever Abbie Cornish is doing.

I must give Darkest Hour credit; it was way more visually interesting than I expected it would be. On the flip side, I expected the movie to be a talky snooze… and it was. This plodding historical drama attempts to portray Winston Churchill not as a revered deity, but as a flawed man. It’s a damn shame that the luminous Timothée Chalamet will lose the Oscar to Gary Oldman, impressive as Oldman’s prosthetic and skilled imitation may be. The Academy has filled its ranks with younger and more diverse voters, and you can sense these Best Picture nominations as a result, with one foot in the thrilling contemporary (Get Out) and one foot in the stodgy past (Darkest Hour).

[gifs courtesy of son-of-athena-dg.tumblr.com]

My Favorite TV Shows & Films of 2017

Before we burn 2017 to the ground, here are my top 10 favorite TV shows, films, and more of the year.

TV SHOWS

THE LEFTOVERS
(HBO)

How do you make sense of a fundamentally broken world? The post-Rapture drama, The Leftovers — hands down, one of the best shows I have ever seen — embarked on a journey to explore these mysteries. What it uncovered was nothing short of a miracle.

Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta’s series was a powerful, and at times bleakly funny, meditation on loss and the meaning of life and love. Every episode in this final season was innovative and extraordinary — from a mystical walkabout, to a sex lion cult, to joyous trampolining set to the Wu Tang Clan.

The best art reflects our lives and processes the shared human experience. This year I experienced a profound loss of a best friend, and The Leftovers was there to help me process my emotions. Speaking to the profound series finale, creator Lindelof said, “We find release from suffering though community, through family, through love.” In the end, the show didn’t answer every question, but instead, “let the mystery be.” The Lefovers revealed the importance of human connection at its core and nothing was more satisfying.

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THE GOOD PLACE
(NBC)

Holy fork, this show is tremendous. Come for the candy-colored afterlife absurdity and stay for the twisted wordplay. (This genius list of food puns by The Good Place writer Megan Amram is one of my favorite things of the year). This scrappy and delightful cast knocks it out of the park with every chaotic curveball that’s thrown at them, from Jameela Jamil’s self-absorbed Tahani, to Manny Jacino’s lovable doofus Jason Mendoza. My life is so much better for The Good Place and yours can be too.

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CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND
(The CW)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend proves its daring once again, by deconstructing the “crazy” in surprising ways. This darker, yet no less hilarious, third season, examines mental health through a deeply compassionate lens. Musical highlights include club banger “I Go to the Zoo,” 80s power anthem “Let’s Generalize About Men,” musical theatre “I Want song”-spoof “The Moment Is Me,” and ABBA-inspired “First Penis I Saw.”

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AMERICAN VANDAL
(Netflix)

My biggest surprise of the year. American Vandal is a pitch-perfect true-crime satire and a marvelously authentic high school story with unexpected emotional beats. I was particularly impressed with how social media was used in its storytelling. Social media depiction in movies and TV shows is often embarrassingly bad, but American Vandal’s footage felt like real teenage digital lives.

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BOJACK HORSEMAN
(Netflix)

At the end of Bojack Horseman’s magnificently silly and profoundly heartbreaking fourth season, a single smile filled my heart and delivered unexpected joy. We can be enough.

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PLEASE LIKE ME
(Hulu)

Josh Thomas’ coming-of-age comedy is a warm and witty romp, with an awkward gay 20-something at its core, doing his best to keep his life and family together.  The fourth and final season of this Australian import was a welcomed treasure, featuring an ending that packed a powerful emotional wallop.

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JANE THE VIRGIN
(The CW)

Our world is in desperate need of empathy and Jane the Virgin is our saving grace. This loving telenovela-inspired series gave me an unexpected gift of healing, which you can read more about here. Thank you, Jane the Virgin.

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SURVIVOR
(CBS)

With 35 seasons under its belt, not every season can be a winner. This year, we saw two mid-tier seasons in Game Changers and Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. The legacies of these two seasons include an ugly outing of a trans contestant, a beloved Survivor legend eliminated without receiving a single vote thanks to too many idols, and a controversial new twist which allowed one player, who would have been eliminated at Final 4, to save himself and ultimately win the game. Not the greatest of looks.

Bonus points for the triumphant return of my all-time favorite player, two-time Survivor winner Queen Sandra Diaz-Twine.

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MASTER OF NONE
(Netflix)

When I look back on this year in TV, the one episode that immediately comes to mind is the beautifully poignant “Thanksgiving.” Its audacious structure highlights that coming out is a continual process, and the strong performances by Lena Waithe and Angela Bassett keeps the humanity at its core. Writers Aziz Ansari and Waithe (who became the first black woman to win a comedy writing Emmy), are more than deserving of all their accolades for telling this story.

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AT HOME WITH AMY SEDARIS
(truTV)

No other show this year made me laugh harder. Amy Sedaris’ take on DIY homemaking shows is wacky, wonderful, weird as all hell.

HERE ARE 7 MORE (because it’s 2017):

PLANET EARTH II (BBC America)
GIRLS (HBO)
GLOW (Netflix)
THE AMERICANS (FX)
CATASTROPHE (Amazon)
AMERICAN CRIME (ABC)
FARGO (FX)


FILMS

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
(directed by Luca Guadagnino)

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LADY BIRD
(directed by Greta Gerwig)

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GET OUT
(directed by Jordan Peele)

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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
(directed by Matt Reeves)

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THE BIG SICK
(directed by Michael Showalter)

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COCO
(directed by Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina (co-director))

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GIRLS TRIP
(directed by Malcolm D. Lee)

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INGRID GOES WEST
(directed by Matt Spicer)

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BABY DRIVER
(directed by Edgar Wright)

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BEATRIZ AT DINNER
(directed by Miguel Arteta)

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BONUS FAVORITE THINGS!

FAVORITE BOOKS:

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Everyone’s An Aliebn When You’re An Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun

FAVORITE PODCASTS:

Homophilia with Dave Holmes & Matt McConkey

Switched on Pop with Charlie Harding & Nate Sloan

FAVORITE THEATRE:

The final dress rehearsal of the First National Tour of Hamilton. When Amber Iman first sang her rich, sultry alto notes of “Say No to This” as Maria Reynolds, the stranger sitting next to me and I gay gasped at the same time, looked at each other, and laughed.

FAVORITE COMEDY THINGS:

Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” (Netflix)

John Mulaney & Nick Kroll’s “Oh, Hello On Broadway” (Netflix)

Julio Torres’ stand-up performance on Late Night with Seth Meyers

John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous tour

FAVORITE ALBUM:

Rainbow by Kesha

FAVORITE SONG:

“New Rules” by Dua Lipa

FAVORITE LATE NIGHT APPEARANCE:

Tiffany Haddish on Jimmy Kimmel Live

FAVORITE YOUTUBE VIDEO TO SHOW PEOPLE:

“Writing’s on the Wall” by The Nor’easters

(Yes, it’s from 2016, but I discovered it after watching the collegiate a cappella docuseries Sing It On this year. You’re welcome.)

FAVORITE 40+ HOUR WASTE OF MY LIFE THAT ALL BECAME WORTH IT IN THE LAST 5 MINUTES WHEN PAUL LOST *AGAIN* AND CAME IN SECOND PLACE FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW:

Big Brother 19.

Just look at Paul’s face.

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

LOST and Found: A Memory of Janelle

If we don’t live together, we’re going to die alone. — Jack Shephard, LOST

It was May 23, 2010.

I threw a LOST series finale party at my Berkeley apartment for eight or so of my friends.

We feasted on island-inspired pulled pork and had mangoes and pineapples for dessert. We drank Dharma chardonnay and ate Dharma fish biscuits I baked for the occasion. You know, from that time when Jack, Kate, and Sawyer were held captive in polar bear cages?

The point is, we went all out in celebration of one of my all-time favorite TV shows.

The DHARMA fish biscuits were tastier than they appeared.

*Light thematic LOST finale spoilers to follow, but come on, if you haven’t watched LOST by now, will you ever?*

We gathered in front the television, awaiting answers to its myriad mysteries. As the finale neared its end, the show revealed its existential beating heart. In essence, the castaways needed to find each other in order to move on. Over the course of six seasons, the journeys of these characters led them all to be in one place, together.

LOST is all about the people in our lives and it celebrates our shared experiences. While we can’t always control what happens to us, we have each other.

To be sure, the finale left questions unanswered. However, in the grand scheme of things, those details become insignificant. It was less about the secrets of the Easter eggs and literary references, and more about the truth in finding value in our loved ones.

What matters most, LOST emphasized, is the people we care for. It’s about the journey we take with them. It’s every life that has made an impact on ours. We carry these bonds with us to the end. The message becomes clear: it’s truly better to live together than to die alone.

In those last moments of the show, I thought about all the people with whom I shared my LOST viewing journey: from my mother, to my roommates, to my friends, to the podcasting community. I was instantly flooded with memories.

I was punched in the gut by an overwhelming cathartic wave and was left crumpled in tears, lying in the fetal position on the floor of my apartment.

Janelle Jovellanos was there right by my side. She took me into her loving embrace. For what could have been minutes, as the credits rolled, I sobbed in her arms.

We had gone down this path together, and here she was, one of the people I cared most about in this world, giving me the support I needed. She knew how much our shared journey meant to me. She was always there for me. She was always there for others.

Janelle, myself, and Jessica in a LOST-esque pose.

Cut to seven years later. May 5, 2017.

I’m sharing this story in a eulogy for Janelle with her close friends and family members.

I tell them that the woman who held me tightly as I wept in front of our friends was the most generous person I have ever met. I go on to share more about my best friend.

About how I first met Janelle in the spring of 2006, my freshman year at Cal, in a student group called Theatre Rice.

How that fall, we were elected co-course coordinators of Theatre Rice and built a safe and loving space for our peers. How it was through leading theatre games that I first keyed into Janelle’s passion for teaching.

How I was honored to witness her grow her talent over the years, from volunteering for a crisis hotline, to leading an after-school reading program, to teaching English in Korea, to teaching elementary school in Oakland and Los Angeles.

How she radiated a boundless capacity for empathy and love. How that in Janelle, we were given a gift. A true gift of love and light.

How it is my honor to continue her legacy of kindness. It is through that love that she will be remembered.

Janelle recreating the LOST scene of Sun’s liberation.

The day I first learned about Janelle’s passing, I watched an episode of Jane the Virgin to distract myself from the pain. It hit me harder than I could have ever expected.

A character on the show had reservations about speaking publicly on the devastating loss of a loved one. She was reassured it would get easier to talk about in time, but she was afraid of the loved one becoming just an anecdote.

She was given beautiful advice that couldn’t have been more perfect for me to hear in the moment:

You’re in a long-term relationship with grief. But it has to evolve. And it’s okay to keep letting go. You have to.

That simple line of dialogue brought me to tears. In hearing those words, I knew my life would never be the same.

With Janelle’s passing barely a month removed, I’m not yet ready to let go.

I’m in a liminal phase, between wanting to wallow in my grief and wanting to cut it down with a sword. But I’m heartened by the fact that I am not entering into this new long-term relationship alone.

I have those who have been alongside me on this journey. We live together. We celebrate Janelle together. She lives on in each of us, through every laugh, through every act of kindness.

You will always be with me, Janelle. I will share your spirit with the world.

My Ranking of the 2017 Oscar Best Picture Nominees

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source: olivierassayas.tumblr.com

Moonlight is extraordinary. At the heart of this story is the simple desire for human connection, told through the emotional experience of the character of Chiron in three stages of his life: as a child, a teenager, and as an adult (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively). Barry Jenkins’ stunningly sensitive coming-of-age story, all at once suffocating and liberating, connected with me in such profound ways. A brief phone call took my breath away; that need for empathy and forgiveness was so deeply felt.

Through a strikingly immersive personal journey of acceptance of a queer, black man, Barry Jenkins’ and original playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay tackles the universality of the human experience and gracefully dismantles the performativity of masculinity. James Laxton’s cinematography channels Chiron’s inner life beautifully, from stark moments of sensual intimacy, to swirling shots of claustrophobia. So much is said in each look not met and each word not spoken. The quietness dances on these characters’ faces and through each ellipses. Moonlight‘s silences speak volumes that will stay with me for a long time.

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source: dailyaffleck.tumblr.com

I came into Manchester By the Sea expecting a bleak meditation on depression, but I was instead met with a finely balanced story between the embodiment of grief and the humor observed in the details of daily life. I was particularly impressed by the narrative structure of Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay; the masterful way character motivations are exposed, the revelations of how a tragic past informs a guarded present. Casey Affleck delivers a magnificent performance in restraint, capturing the complexities of his emotionally unavailable character behind pained eyes, furrowed brows, and clenched fists. Manchester By the Sea delivers especially devastating wordless, emotional scenes, but it’s not a film without hope.

source: olivierassayas.tumblr.com

source: olivierassayas.tumblr.com

Arrival took me by complete surprise, both as an emotional personal story and as an intelligent and thoughtful work of science fiction. Amy Adams’ nuanced work as a linguist who attempts to speak with newly arrived aliens, is worthy of an Oscar nomination. There is such a captivating patience with her process that reveals a deep belief that communication is key to our species. Arrival believes in the optimism of humanity; that only through understanding and cooperation, can we advance together as a species. It’s a poignant message that rings especially true in today’s political climate.

source: olivierassayas.tumblr.com

source: olivierassayas.tumblr.com

In the hands of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, we are front row center to an acting masterclass. I respect Fences confidence in showcasing playwright August Wilson’s masterpiece of American theatre. The film embraces both Wilson’s dense, gorgeous dialogue and its stage roots. By keeping the Maxon family fenced-in in their backyard, director Denzel Washington allows the stifling pressure to build ever so slowly, until tensions to boil over and explode.

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source: maemedia.tumblr.com

I can understand why some people have fallen head over heels for La La Land. The film provides a sweeping Technicolor escape of romantic reverie. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have dynamite chemistry together, particularly in Emma Stone’s fantastic expressiveness. Sun-kissed colors leap off the screen, thanks to a radiant costume and production design.

Ultimately, La La Land disappoints; it’s more a movie with musical numbers than a full-fledged musical. It’s a fine movie for movie lovers, but less so a successful movie for musical lovers. And for a movie that celebrates movie musicals, I wanted more musicality.

La La Land starts out with so much potential and promise with the inventive choreography of “Another Day of Sun” (but poor sound mixing, coupled with weak vocals from those soloists, makes the opening number surprisingly difficult to listen to). Sadly, that vibrant musical energy all but evaporates from the rest of the film, only to return in its wonderful final sequence.

It’s telling that my favorite musical moment, Ryan Gosling’s 80s cover band’s take on “I Ran,” is the one the film takes the least seriously. Emma Stone lights up the screen with her sharp comedic timing, which nicely contrasts his bright red jacketed self-loathing. No other moment lived up to this all-too-brief moment of delight.

Emma Stone’s struggling actress storyline is so painfully familiar (and really, what else do we know about her?), that nothing new comes out of it at all. I had an immediate, visceral reaction to Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash, but came away from La La Land with a “well, that was nice.”

Hidden Figures, the true life story of black female mathematicians working for NASA, was every bit as inspiring as I had wanted it to be. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and particularly, Janelle Monáe’s, performances are luminous and magnetic. There’s an undeniable sense of joy that radiates from every pore, delivered at just the right, crowd-pleasing levels. To be fair, you know exactly where the story is headed, but it’s a journey that needs to be told and CELEBRATED.

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Hell or High Water is a film for our times, a character-driven modern-day Western that captures the unease and unrest of our economic climate. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers who rob banks together as a last-ditch effort to save their family land from foreclosure. There’s a warm affection for its complex and morally ambiguous characters and the movie delivers a potent mix of emotionally rich human moments and bleak, non-romanticized action sequences.

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source: rxbytuesday.tumblr.com

I cried no less than five times during Lion. I can’t help it; I’m a crier! This tear-jerker of a movie belongs to Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo, a young Indian boy who becomes separated from his family. He radiates such magnetic charm that it becomes all the more devastating once the tragedy takes hold. While Saroo’s journey as an adult (played by an excellent Dev Patel), and his isolating struggle to reunite with his family, is less engaging, Lion still delivers some truly emotionally potent fireworks.

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source: letdiegolunatouchjabbathehutt.tumblr.com

The utterly charming Andrew Garfield aside, Hacksaw Ridge, about real-life WWII conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, is not for me. Altogether, the film is overly sentimental in depicting one man’s devout convictions and overly brutal in portraying the atrocities of human warfare. And boy, those war scenes are overflowing with torturous and unrelenting violence. Unfortunately, Hacksaw Ridge’s simple focus on an uncomplicated morality doesn’t reveal much of anything under a bloody surface. Inspiring? Sure. Interesting? Not so much.

My Favorite TV Shows & Films of 2016

Here are my top 10 favorite TV shows and films of 2016. Let’s get this year over with, shall we?!

TV SHOWS

CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND (CW)

There is no better gift to a theatre kid like me than Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s brilliant and subversive tribute to romantic comedies and musical theatre. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is fabulously self-aware, hilariously screwball, unapologetically feminist, and chock-full of must-see musical gems like the brilliant “JAP Battle,” Fifth Harmony parody “Put Yourself First” (that sax tho!), and Singing in the Rain send-up “We Tapped That Ass.”

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend knows exactly the show it wants to be and is refreshingly honest about its characters’ flaws, in particular, Rebecca Bunch’s (Rachel Bloom) anti-heroic delusions. If that weren’t enough, the show features a Filipino-American male romantic lead. Representation matters, y’all.

Season one is streaming on Netflix. I can’t recommend this show enough.

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SURVIVOR (CBS)

Even in its 32nd and 33rd seasons, Survivor still delivers surprises and shockers each episode. This fall’s season, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, delivered a deliciously entertaining combination of shocking blindsides, next-level strategy, and compelling (and most importantly, likable) characters. #wow

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PLEASE LIKE ME (HULU)

This Australian import is my favorite television discovery of the year. Josh Thomas’ coming-of-age comedy, centered around a young, gay twenty-something, has stolen my heart with its upbeat charm and quirky characters. I love this show to pieces.

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source: dailypleaselikeme.tumblr.com

THE AMERICANS (FX)

Each year, the best drama on television increases its heartbreaking stakes, while digging deeper into the emotional struggles of its characters. The Americans‘ unexpected dramatic instability kept viewers on edge all season long, as the stress of the Jennings’ real/fake marriage and their relationship with their teenage daughter were pushed to a near-breaking point.

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ATLANTA (FX)

Donald Glover’s brand new series swiftly and languidly navigates down the paths of the surreal and real, taking us to places TV hasn’t gone before. It’s a truly breathtaking endeavor.

atlanta-2016

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THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY (FX)

By all accounts, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of the O.J. Simpson trial should have been a hot mess, but instead the limited-run series was an engrossing triumph that drew thought-provoking comparisons to today’s society, bolstered by a dynamite trio of performances from Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance.

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BOJACK HORSEMAN (NETFLIX)

Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s profound and profane animated series mixes pathos with animal puns, and existential crises with Hollywood satire. The tremendous third season delivered one of the best episodes of TV this year: the dialogue-free, underwater-set “Fish Out of Water.”

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source: jellymonstergirl.tumblr.com

JANE THE VIRGIN (CW)

Jane the Virgin is consistently the most intelligent, emotional, and character-rich storytelling on television. It’s a confident warm blanket of a telenovela that delights in its open-hearted interpersonal relationships.

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source: b99.tumblr.com

AMERICAN CRIME (ABC)

The second season of this anthology drama, focused on an alleged rape of a male high school student by a fellow student on the school’s basketball team, features superb acting (Regina King! Felicity Huffman! Lili Taylor!) with powerful and provocative discussions about race, class, and sexuality.

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source: laquing.tumblr.com

BILLY ON THE STREET (truTV)

For a dollar, name another show on television that makes me laugh out loud more than Billy on the Street. Spoiler Alert: You’ll never get that dollar. Billy Eichner’s pop culture explosions are an incredible comedic tour de force.

One of my absolute favorite things of the year: Billy Eichner tells unsuspecting people on the street that Seth Rogen has suddenly died, while Rogen stands just feet away behind a camera.


FILMS

MOONLIGHT

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source: lgbtcinema.tumblr.com

ZOOTOPIA

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THE LOBSTER

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source: alsk00.tumblr.com

SING STREET

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source: sokillintime.tumblr.com

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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source: emliy-junks.tumblr.com

DON’T THINK TWICE

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source: keegansjordan.tumblr.com

OTHER PEOPLE

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LA LA LAND

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source: chazelle.tumblr.com

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE

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source: henricavyll.tumblr.com

LEMONADE

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source: causeislay.tumblr.com

Emmys 2016 Review: A Night of Surprises

Televised award shows can often be painful to sit through, but thankfully, there were enough surprises in the 2016 Emmy Awards to balance out the inevitable second consecutive wins for Veep and Game of Thrones. The potent combination of deserving first-time winners, moving speeches, and diverse voices at the podium made the night feel spontaneous and exciting. At its best, these Emmys, indeed, felt like a true celebration of what television has to offer, and many of the outcomes delighted me.

Master of None’s “Parents” was awarded the Emmy for Writing for a Comedy, an episode that focuses on two first-generation Americans asking their parents to tell the stories about their lives before coming to America. As a child of immigrant parents myself, this story hit straight to the heart. The episode brought me to tears and immediately after, I called my mother. *cue awwww* Awards aren’t the be-all and end-all, but it does feels good to know that this award reinforces the notion that these are stories worth telling. Even better was writer Alan Yang’s acceptance speech, which emphasized the need for more Asian-American stories:

There’s 17 million Asian-Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong, so we’ve got a long way to go. But I know we can get there. I believe in us. It’s just going to take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you could just do me a favor, just a couple of you get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll be all good.

emmys_alan_yang

Kate McKinnon’s win for Supporting Actress in a Comedy for her work on Saturday Night Live was also a delight. She had a banner year, thanks to Hillary Clinton, and sketches like The One Where She Was Abducted By Aliens And Ryan Gosling Couldn’t Keep It Together. McKinnon’s humble shout-outs from Hillary Clinton and Ellen Degeneres, to her writing partners, the now co-head writers Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly (watch his new film Other People!), to her late father who pushed her to watch SNL as a child, were particularly moving.

Director Jill Soloway, who won for Transparent, gave a particularly rousing acceptance speech, with a passionate plea to “topple the patriarchy.” Soloway centered the storytelling of queer and trans women in her acceptance speech:

When you take women, people of color, trans people, queer people, and you put them at the center of the story, the subjects instead of the objects, you change the world, we found out. This TV show allows me to take my dreams about unlikeable Jewish people, queer folk, trans folk, and make them the heroes.

Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor’s won Actor in a Comedy for his thoughtful portrayal of Maura Pfefferman, and his speech concluded with a heartfelt plea of his own: a call for greater hiring of transgender talent. Witnessing diversity in storytelling from a pioneering show like Transparent be richly rewarded was a step in the right direction.

emmys_jill_soloway

American Crime was one of my favorite television shows of the year. The anthology drama couples superb acting with powerful and provocative discussions about race, class, and sexuality. It was gratifying to see Regina King be recognized two years in a row for her magnetic work as a mother of a high school basketball player team accused of assault.

Although I was rooting for the cool threat that was Bookeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan from Fargo, I was happy that the award went to Sterling K. Brown’s understated performance as Christopher Darden in The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The thrilling wins for Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson, who played Johnny Cochran and Marcia Clark, respectively, proved the stellar casting for Ryan Murphy’s series. These three captivating actors took on historical figures familiar to the American public, and breathed new life into their narratives, making their portrayals deeply sympathetic and human. Paulson was one of the locks of the evening, and her win was long overdue.

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On the flip side, yes, The People vs O.J. Simpson was excellent television, but I’m disappointed that Fargo’s remarkable second season was shut out in the process, coming up empty-handed in every category it was nominated in. Was this season too left-field for voters? Too bleak or violent? Too wrapped up in Midwestern quirk, and mysticism? Sigh.

Grease Live was a fine technical feat, with swift and precise direction by Alex Rudzinski and Hamilton‘s Thomas Kail. The live broadcast navigated multiple indoor and outdoor sets, live crowds, inclement weather, and more, but the conceit has been done before, even if it was the best of this new generation of live musicals. Beyoncé’s Lemonade was an artistic achievement like no other. Queen B should have won Directing for a Variety Special and taken one more step closer to EGOT status.

Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot Anderson was a singular triumph on Mr. Robot. Malek tackled such an intense character plagued with drug addiction, social anxiety, and mental illness, but always found ways to humanize him. We don’t often see characters on television like Elliot, much less see their performances rewarded, so this win for Lead Actor in a Drama felt important. Plus, bae looked good in a white Dior suit.

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Host Jimmy Kimmel joked in his opening monologue that “the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity.” As the night went on, the more this notion seemed true. However cynical Kimmel’s quip was, it was refreshing to see the stage visited by African-Americans, Asian-Americans, queer women, an Egyptian-American, and sure, a couple of white men here and there too.

At last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s took home two trophies for Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy and Choreography. How it lost Main Title Theme Music to Jessica Jones (?!?!?!) is beyond me. One is a sunny, catchy earworm that jabs at sexism, while the other is a bland jazz number. The winner is completely obvious to me, but I guess the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that. Regardless, just let the words “Emmy Award-Winning Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” sink in. We’re so #blessed!

The best show on television, The Americans, was woefully ignored, after being finally being invited to the party in its fourth season. When Character Actress Margo Martindale’s won for Guest Actress at the Creative Arts Emmys, for a role with seemingly less than ten minutes of screen time, I was hoping that the award boded well for the show’s Emmy chances come Sunday night. Alas, the night was not for The Americans. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, your time has yet to come. Next year, Game of Thrones will air outside of eligibility for the 2017 Emmys, leaving a dragon-sized void in the race. With the HBO juggernaut out of the mix next year, could The Americans finally emerge victorious?

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[gifs courtesy of giphy.com and outofficial.tumblr.com]

This Is Our Now: Our 30 Favorite American Idol Performances

We’ve reached #IdolFinale week, and as I write this post, 50+ Idol alumni are rehearsing in Los Angeles for the finale on Thursday. Here’s a pretty millennial sentence for you: American Idol’s Snapchat is taking us backstage of the finale rehearsals, and thanks to alumni shout-outs from Season 2’s Kimberly Locke, to Season 6’s Melinda Doolittle, and more, I am instantly nostalgic about these past 15 years. Looking back at Idol’s tenure and re-watching old clips on YouTube, it’s dawned on me just how much this show has been a part of my life.

I’ll miss the sense of community Idol formed, from the engaged viewership voting week to week, to music and TV critics and bloggers, to the contestants themselves. What makes this show so special is that we, the viewers, have a sense of ownership of these contestants. We’ve supported and invested in their artistic growth. We journeyed along with them from their obscurity to stardom. We fell in love with their stories and for a brief moment of confetti, the American Dream felt real.

For myself and my Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, we’ve lived and breathed Idol for half our lives. We’ve had lengthy Gchat debates after each episode. We’ve blogged and blogged and blogged about this show. We auditioned for Idol Season 10 together at AT&T Park. We’ve attended Idol tours and concerts. We participated in online Fantasy Leagues. I even won an iPod Nano in a Fantasy League once… which I traded in for cash to buy Idol concert tickets. Between the two of us, we’ve seen all the Idol winners perform live, excluding Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks, Phillip Phillips, and Nick Fradiani (sorry, boys!). So yes, we’re Idol geeks, and my heart belongs to this silly show.

So without further ado, here are our 30 favorite American Idol performances: 15 from me, 15 from the other Jonathan. You know, to celebrate Idol’s 15 seasons.

This isn’t a list of the 30 “Best” American Idol performances, mind you. These are the moments that have stayed with us all these years and will for years to come, until Idol is inevitably rebooted.

American Idol Fave Performances

JONATHAN AMORES’ 15 FAVORITE PERFORMANCES

1. Kris Allen: “Heartless” (Season 8)

Seasons 7 and 8 were peak Idol. The show didn’t just find a great group of singers those years, but it showcased a diverse range of memorable musicians who delivered surprises in different styles each week. For me, Idol reached the apex at Season 8’s Top 3 night. Kris Allen was going up against the brilliant risk-taker Adam Lambert and the perpetually frustrating Danny Gokey. The week before, Danny performed an abysmal “Dream On” and miraculously survived elimination. If he managed to outlast the sublime Allison Iraheta with that train-wreck, he would certainly derail Kris. No pressure, Kris…

“Heartless” was the right song at the right time. Not only was it a killer acoustic performance, it was a seismic shift that rocked Idol viewers. Kris’ a cappella intro into soared through the air and he began to accompany himself on guitar. A few more bars in, and you realize, “Oh damn, this entire song is acoustic.” Kris was making a statement. “Heartless” grew in intensity from there, creating a beautiful arc, rising up to some killer high notes. When the song ended, a smile registered on Kris’ face. He did it. The game changed. Kris made it into the finale. In fact, this was moment he won the entire season. Never underestimate the underdog.

2. Haley Reinhart: “Bennie and the Jets” (Season 10)

I had to impose a limit on this list: only one performance per contestant. If I didn’t self-impose, I’d have listed Haley Reinhart’s “I (Who Have Nothing),” “House of the Rising Sun,” “What Is and What Will Never Be,” AND “Bennie and the Jets.” To put it bluntly, Haley is a magical siren and we are #blessed to have her in our lives.

Here’s a little truth-bomb for you, I HATED Haley’s performances up until this point in the competition. I just couldn’t wrap my ears around her slinky growl or her jazz-influenced style. That all changed with “Bennie and the Jets.” It was like watching a beautiful rocket ship blast off to the moon. There was so much joy emanating from her being as she bit into every “Benniiiiiiie!” She owned the stage with every confident step and arm wave and everything just clicked. Haley had arrived and “Bennie and the Jets” instantly became my ringtone.

3. David Cook: “Billie Jean” (Season 7)

David Cook is the most influential American Idol winner, not through his post-Idol career, but in the way he approached his performances on the show. He made theme nights work for him, rather than molding his songs around the often stodgy themes. David flipped songs on their heads, maintaining and strengthening his artistic integrity, while staying true to the songs’ lyrical content. His bold approach to Idol performances paved the way for artists like Kris Allen and Adam Lambert the following season, all the way to Season 15’s MacKenzie Bourg.

The judges love to use the phrase “Making the song your own,” and with “Billie Jean,” David did just that. He took Michael Jackson’s R&B dance-pop classic and transformed it into a commanding and haunting ballad. He imbued every lyric with swagger and amplified it with his vocal prowess. Each of his renditions were a surprise. David Cook bent the competition to his strengths and inspired contestants for years to come.

4. Carrie Underwood: “Alone” (Season 4)

As a contestant on the show, Carrie Underwood’s Idol performances were underwhelming. She had all the charisma of a farm girl who had never stepped onto an airplane before the show. After seeing two of her arena tours, I can attest that she’d definitely grown into her confident persona. Her songs on Idol were well-sung, yet wholly unremarkable. Well, all performances except one.

When Carrie tackled Heart’s classic anthem, she instantly lit up the screen. Powerful vocals aside, “Alone” was all about three things: the hair, the smoky eye, and the power stance. After her electrifying performance, Simon Cowell made his prophetic critique: “Not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other previous Idol winner.” He was right and the rest was history.

5. LaToya London: “All By Myself” (Season 3)

LaToya London was the first singer on American Idol that I claimed as my own. I voted for her each week, as she delivered flawless performance after flawless performance. I became defensive on her behalf when she was criticized for not having a dynamic enough personality. I was utterly heartbroken at her elimination, falling just short of the finals in fourth place, behind the over-her-head Jasmine Trias. LaToya was the least flashy of the Three Divas (LaToya London, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino), and I loved her even more for that. She was my powerhouse singer.

LaToya broke onto the scene during the semi-finals with a jaw-dropping rendition “All By Myself.” Her astonishingly clear vocals, stunning grace, and profound emotional resonance aimed straight to my heart. Not to mention, she was from Oakland. Bay Area REPRESENT.

6. Jena Irene: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Season 13)

I can’t help falling in love with Jena Irene’s suave, stripped-down arrangement. The way she envelopes you with her voice while accompanying herself on the piano—it’s truly breathtaking. The Queen did the King proud.

7. Kelly Clarkson: “Natural Woman” (Season 1)

There’s a reason that Idol is the House That Clarkson Built. Her confidence and vocal prowess in “Natural Woman” are unmatched. And that whistle note. My God.

8. Allison Iraheta & Adam Lambert: “Slow Ride” (Season 8)

“Slow Ride” is the best duet that has ever been performed on American Idol. Granted, the bar was never very high, but this tag-team of two powerhouse rockers is pure perfection.

9. La’Porsha Renae: “Diamonds” (Season 15)

It’s such a thrill to watch La’Porsha Renae perform. Her runs and phrasing are insane and wonderfully unexpected, yet she is always in control of her powerful instrument.

10. Allison Iraheta: “Cry Baby” [Elimination] (Season 8)

Yes, picking this song is a cheat, but this performance is SO good it has to make my list. Allison fuels her send-off with the pain and heartbreak of her undeserved elimination. (GTFO Danny Gokey smirking!) Just look at the tears in her eyes. Allison just lets it go and leaves it ALL on the Idol stage.

11. Blake Lewis: “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Season 6)

Blake Lewis knocks it out of the park with his fresh, invigorating take on a Bon Jovi classic. His beatboxing tricks may come across as cheesy now, but they jolted life into the Season 6 finale.

12. David Archuleta: “Imagine” (Season 7)

Archie is just pure vocal honey. His voice is rich, creamy butter. He is all puppy metaphors wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket with a little red bow on top.

13. Avalon Young: “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” (Season 15)

This performance just puts a smile on my face. Avalon Young is a refreshing breeze of flirty R&B swag. She exudes a coolness unlike any other contestant in Idol‘s fifteen seasons.

14. Skylar Laine: “Stay with Me” (Season 11)

Skylar Laine is a firecracker, plain and simple. She feels the music so deeply, she just HAS to stomp her feet and shake her hands. Her unbridled energy needs to be released into the world.

15. Naima Adedapo: “Umbrella” (Season 10)

Fearlessness. Pure fearlessness. In one song, Naima dances. Naima raps a self-written rap. Naima shouts, “BOOM! FIYAH!” I mean, come ON. How can you not be entertained?!

JONATHAN YU’S 15 FAVORITE PERFORMANCES

1. Haley Reinhart: “House of the Rising Sun” (Season 10)

Everyone loves an underdog, and no one embodied that better on Idol than Haley. While I have liked her since her over-the-top but fantastic rendition of “God Bless the Child” in Hollywood, it was easy to see why she was not exactly a fan favorite in the first few weeks of live performances. Thankfully, she somehow managed to stick around until her tide-changing performance of “Bennie and the Jets.”

On Top 5 night she sang the bejesus out of an unreleased (at the time) Lady Gaga track, “You and I,” which earned only lukewarm comments from the judges (who would later go on to bus her harder than any other contestant). This made the revenge even sweeter when she came back in round two with one of the best performances on Idol ever – “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s a comfort to know that she is gaining viral success thanks to her frequent collaborations post-Idol with Postmodern Jukebox and unlikely partnership with Extra Gum (and no thanks to revisionist JLo).

2. Jasmine Trias: “Inseparable” (Season 3)

Back before the age of YouTube, I used to frequent Idol forums to read up on the latest Idol news and get MP3 rips of performances (S/O to idolforums.com!). At the beginning of Season 3, there was a whisper of a Hawaiian girl who really wowed the judges at her first audition, but did not get any airtime before the semifinals. I was instantly drawn to her because here was someone getting buzz who looked like me. In an age where Asian American representation in the media boiled down to, ironically, William Hung from earlier in the same season, I just wanted her to be good so badly.

While her initial outing during semifinals week did not elicit a “Wow” as much as a “This girl has potential,” her second live performance, on the Top 12 episode, made me so incredibly happy. I had my doubts about her choice of “Inseparable” by Natalie Cole (RIP), since I loved Kimberly Locke’s rendition of it from the previous season. However, as soon as she opened her mouth, I shut mine, and then opened again as my jaw hit the floor during the chorus. This is probably the most excited I have ever been about an Idol performance in my life. #Representation. It’s a pity she went on a steady decline after and overstayed her welcome, but INSEPARABLE, y’all!

3. Allison Iraheta & Adam Lambert: “Slow Ride” (Season 8)

Duets on Idol can be a really hit or miss sort of affair. And on the first night they were introduced, we saw both sides of that. On one hand, a duet can bring out the worst in the contestants, turning a performance into a shouting match (see: “Renegade”). On the other hand, when the two contestants are in sync, it’s one of the most joyous things to witness.

Case in point, when Adam and Allison teamed up for “Slow Ride,” they produced something greater than the sum of its already great parts. While duets are more often duds than not, I am just thankful that this performance opened up the doors for the Jessica/Joshua and Caleb/Jena duets that followed in its footstep. Let’s just forget this ever happened.

4. Fantasia Barrino: “I Believe” (Season 3)

I’ll be the first to admit that, while I appreciated her talents, Fantasia was not my go to diva of Season 3 initially (go JHud!). Heck, she wasn’t even my second go to diva of the season (Go LaToya!). Her distinctly rough yet nasally tone peeved me, along with many others, if internet comments are to be believed.

Somewhere along the way, though, I started to understand the appeal in her raw and passionate vocals. “Summertime” remains the best Idol performance of all time, in my opinion, but it’s her coronation song that made me cry (but not out loud!). Idol winner singles are usually trite and corny affairs, but she made it a soulful and uplifting anthem. American Idol trades in inspirational stories, and hers is one most hopeful.

5. David Cook: “The World I Know” (Season 7)

Season 7 was a pivotal season for Idol. It was the last season before Kara DioGuardi would introduce the word “artistry” into the her critiques (read: every critique). In an era where the norm was essentially vocalists singing karaoke (granted, VERY good vocalists singing VERY good karaoke), David came in and broke the mold.

With a string of innovative performances (“Hello,” Billie Jean,” and “Always Be My Baby” come to mind), he forever changed the game. His mic-drop moment, for me, came in the finale when he chose to end with “The World I Know” instead of a reprise, much to the chagrin of Simon. The haunting and beautiful choice was the perfect ending for an Idol run that defied expectations.

6. Sonika Vaid: “Bring Me to Life” (Season 15)

One of the prettiest voices to grace the Idol stage. This performance lived up to its name and BROUGHT. ME. LIFE. It’s a shame that she went the way of Jasmine Trias afterwards though.

7. Jennifer Hudson: “Weekend in New England” (Season 3)

It seemed like she was finally on track to go far after her spectacular performance of “Circle of Life,” but alas, it was not to be. Her final Idol performance gave me goosebumps for days. Still the best pure belting voices on Idol ever.

8. Tamyra Gray: “A House Is Not A Home” (Season 1)

While I did not watch Season 1 when it was on, I went back and re-watched most of Tamyra’s clips before Season 2 started. This was a perfect performance, and her boot was the controversy that put Idol on the map for many people, including myself.

9. Kelly Clarkson: “Stuff Like That There” (Season 1)

After proving she can sing pretty much any Aretha Franklin song, it was unexpected to hear her sing this song, and sing it flawlessly. It goes to show that Kelly Clarkson can, in fact, sing ANYTHING.

10. Jena Irene: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Season 13)

When it comes to piano ballads, Jena is the queen. This was moving and so perfectly suited for her unique and powerful voice.

11. LaToya London: “Don’t Rain On My Parade” (Season 3)

As far as I know, this was the one and only time Idol let a contestant do two songs back to back. Following “Too Close For Comfort,” which could be career best for any other contestant, she proceeded to take it home with “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” which remains one of the most perfect vocal performances on Idol ever.

12. Elliott Yamin: “Moody’s Mood For Love” (Season 5)

Jazz is a bit underrepresented on Idol, but thank goodness for Elliott, who managed to completely nail this incredibly difficult song. Boy’s got SOUL.

13. Sarina-Joi Crowe: “Mama Knows Best” (Season 14)

The entire performance was like a vocal high-kick, and then she finishes it off with an actual high-kick. *Mic-drop*

14. Carrie Underwood: “Alone” (Season 4)

The only Idol performance of Carrie’s that a normal person would remember. This performance sealed the already-sealed deal for her, and inspired too many pale imitations to this performance on later seasons (save Allison Iraheta’s also-fantastic rendition).

15. Kris Allen: “Ain’t No Sunshine” (Season 8)

This performance propelled him from “great contestant” to “contender.” The finale reprise was somehow even better than the first show-stopping performance.

My Final American Idol Rankings: Season 15’s Top 10

THIS… is the Farewell Season of American Idol! Who will be the final winner in the House that Kelly Clarkson Built?

It’s only fitting the biggest thing to come out of the Top 10 reveal night was Kelly’s vulnerable and heartbreaking performance of “Piece By Piece,” quite possibly the crown jewel of American Idol performances. She gave the last batch of contestants a master class in pure, emotionally connected performances. Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this. What a talent.

This fifteenth season will be my fifth and final year writing about this silly pageantry I hold so dear in my heart. Here is my ranking of American Idol 2015 Season 15’s Top 10, from most to least favorite contestant:

American Idol Season 15 Top 10

Avalon YoungAvalon Young: Avalon Young will not win American Idol. It’s a damn shame, because she’d make a perfect bookend to Kelly Clarkson’s win. Like Kelly, Avalon is someone you’d just want to hang out with. She’s just sooooo cool, sitting in a pocket of 90s flirty swag. Avalon exudes an effortless, breezy confidence and her beautiful, infectious R&B-toned performances just look and feel so natural. I worry that we’ve seen all that Avalon can do, but I have faith that she has that killer competitive instinct to deliver knockout moments. All in all, Avalon is just such a f*cking delight.

LaPorsha RenaeLa’Porsha Renae: La’Porsha Renae should win American Idol. In terms of pure talent, she is head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. She masterfully commands the stage with her powerful runs, yet she is always in control of her vocals. Her musicality surprises at every turn, and in each performance you can see that she’s hungry for the win. La’Porsha has the vocal dexterity, emotional connection, and the inspiring motivation as a single mother to drive her to the end. She would be the perfect final winner. Even guest judge Kelly Clarkson predicted her win after La’Porsha’s showstopping “Diamonds.” It’s a must-watch.

MacKenzie BourgMacKenzie Bourg: MacKenzie Bourg will win American Idol. He performs like an Idol winner. He sounds like an Idol winner. He looks like an Idol winner. MacKenzie is the absolute epitome of Idol‘s White Guy With Guitar winners (David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery, Nick Fradiani). MacKenzie’s style is closest to my #1 Mr. Allen, but he isn’t nearly a strong a singer as Kris is, nor has he taken any creative risks as Kris has yet. MacKenzie hasn’t expanded his musical palette and needs some strong creative performances and surprising re-arrangements to really set himself apart. He’s got the doe-eyed angst, now let’s see the artistry.

Sonika VaidSonika Vaid: Sonika is the quintessential American Idol old-school contestant. She’s a technically proficient singer, with a clear, strong vocal instrument. Sonika needs to figure out how to harness and deploy her voice effectively and tap into her emotions, or she could follow in the footsteps of the dearly departed Pia Toscano. Thankfully, she’s beginning to show signs of personality. Exhibit A: her dramatic rendition of “Bring Me to Life.”

Trent Harmon: Poor Trent will forever be known as the Guy with Mono. I like his buttery, soulful tone, but his vibrato can get away from him. In his higher register, he sings right up to the edge of wailing, which can grate on the ears (while his face-pulling can grate on the eyes). On the plus side, Trent is nothing but genuine and open-hearted.

Olivia RoxOlivia Rox: Olivia is spunky and confident, and possesses maturity that stretches beyond her 17 years. I like her warm pop-rock tone, but she can sound squeezed in her vocals. Her bright stage presence makes for appealing performances, although at times, moments come off as a bit rehearsed and stagey.

Dalton Rapattoni: If Mackenzie Bourg doesn’t win American Idol, I could see this mini Billie Joe Armstrong right up there. Dalton is all about interpreting music into his own Forever 21 rocker style, yet he cultivates an air of unconvincing inauthenticity. His performances come across as all flash, little heart. Unlike La’Porsha, whose passionate hunger motivates her performances, Dalton just comes off as #THIRSTY.

Tristan McIntosh: Now we get to the three 15-year-olds, who don’t deserve to be at this level. It’s unfortunate that this is the farewell season of Idol, as Tristan, Lee, and Gianna could really benefit from five or ten more years of experience. The raw talent is there, but it’s too raw at this stage. Go out and LIVE, kids! Tristan is somehow both overly-emotive and overly-dull, both of which amplify her tendency to sing flat. Kudos to her for wanting to be a country star as a woman of color, though. In a few years (or more), she’ll gain the emotional intelligence and experience to really make an impact with her music.

Lee JeanLee Jean: Lee Jean is pleasant, slight, and inoffensive. There is honestly nothing remarkable about him, other than his fresh-faced demeanor. Charm can only get you so far. And we get it, Lee, you love your Ed Sheeran. Move on, please.

Gianna IsabellaGianna Isabella: Gianna would not have gotten this far if her mother weren’t pop singer Brenda K. Starr. Gianna is certainly a determined teenager, but you can see her thinking so hard about hitting the right notes. She’s so transparent and paint-by-notes, it’s like watching a child play dress-up in her parents’ clothes. Gianna lacks the emotional maturity to ground her unrefined singing. There’s nothing behind her eyes, just steely eyed pluckiness.