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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

My Ranking of the 2016 Oscars Best Picture Nominees

Thanks to the AMC Best Picture Showcase, I was able to watch all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night! As a whole, my favorite movies make me feel something and take me on an emotional journey. I want to feel invested in its world and in its characters. That being said, here is my ranking of all the nominees, from my most to least favorite.

Room

My favorite film of this year’s Oscars crop is Room. I read Emma Donoghue’s Room for a book club in 2011. For the first time in my life, a book had made me cry. The tears flowed during this film adaptation as well (I lost count at six times). Like the novel, Room is an emotionally captivating character study of a kidnapped woman held prisoner with her young son that she was forced to bear. Brie Larson perfectly embodies both a fierce maternal instinct and the vulnerability and exhaustion of a woman who was taken captive at only 17. Jacob Tremblay is stunning as the 5-year-old Jack and leads us through the world of Room with curiosity, horror, and wonder. It’s a shame his exceptional work wasn’t acknowledged with an Oscar nomination. Ultimately, the catharsis I experienced filled me with an inspired and life-affirming empathy. Room is going to stay with me for a long time.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn is a deceptively simple and utterly charming tale about a young Irish woman emigrating by herself to America in the 1950s. This extraordinarily lovely coming of age film presents adulthood as a series of choices, and reminds us that smaller stakes stories can resonate even deeper into our hearts than life or death superheroics. Saoirse Ronan is absolutely magnificent as the film’s center and breathes life into Eilis Lacey’s emotional inner world. The humanity of her heartache, longing, tenderness, and bliss, is all deeply personal and deeply felt. Plus, Brooklyn has LEO FROM SMASH.

Mad Max

Mad Max: Fury Road is kinetic, frenetic, and is meant to be seen in movie theaters. George Miller’s images leap off of the screen (Cirque du Soleil-esque pole attackers!) and are littered with a manical style (flamethrowing guitars!). This is a wild action movie that has something to say and gives meaningful voices to the women who (pardon the pun) drive the plot. Charlize Theron’s performance as Furiosa is legit badass. You experience Mad Max: Fury Road, in all its full throttle, eye-popping glory. It’s what movie theaters were made for. I would love to see Mad Max: Fury Road take home the big prize.

Spotlight

Spotlight is a subtle and sharp film. Thanks to the its confident screenplay, Spotlight tells a seemingly straightforward story, the investigative reporting of the cover-up of the Catholic Church’s priest’s child abuses, and infuses it with vitality and deftness. It’s an ensemble showcase of its talented actors, including Oscar nominees Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, who do fine work, creating three-dimensional characters in the midst of this season’s flashier films. It’s certainly cliché to speak of a place as a character, but Boston lives and breathes in this film, especially in the exterior shots (all those churches!). Not to mention, the film’s unflinching portrayal of the scandal still manages to pierce our hearts without a trace of righteousness, culminating in the powerful epilogue screens of all of the Church’s sexual abuses over America and the world.

The Martian

Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman can barely contain his excitement when he yells out, “Yeah, science!” in a memorable Breaking Bad scene and “Yeah, bitch! MAGNETS!” in another. These enthusiastic exclamations about the joys of science is basically The Martian in a nutshell. In fact, Matt Damon’s Mark Watney proclaims that he will “science the shit out of this” in order to survive being stranded on Mars. Damon has charisma to spare and his journey as a sexy space botanist is simply a delight to watch. The Martian is an absolute crowd pleaser, but the action on Earth fares less well than the space adventures.

The Revenant

I came into The Revenant expecting to dislike it, but I came away impressed. This frontier revenge drama was as gorgeous as it was punishing. And boy, is it incredibly punishing. The movie is stunning to look at, but the story and thematic elements are lacking (as is a Best Screenplay nomination). Leonardo DiCaprio does admirable work in his mostly wordless performance, but Tom Hardy’s irked me to no end with his portrayal. I honestly couldn’t understand what he was mumbling half the time.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies is a respectable (if not old-fashioned) film made by the respectable Steven Spielberg. In the casting of respectable Tom Hanks, you know exactly what you’re in for: a gentle, broad swath of optimistic patriotism. Mark Rylance’s performance as a captured Russian spy is easily the best part of the film. Rylance is refreshingly droll and remarkably measured. Bridge of Spies is beautifully crafted, but if I wanted to watch Russian espionage, I would gladly take the outstanding The Americans. Season 4 starts March 16 on FX!

The Big Short

When it comes down for it, The Big Short is simply not for me. That doesn’t mean that this well-constructed and often hilarious film about the 2008 housing crisis isn’t good, though. I can still appreciate the cheeky breaking-the-fourth-wall asides that simplify dense economic lingo, but Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bathtub was not meant for me. I just wasn’t invested (again, pardon the pun) in this world of morally corrupt men in a morally corrupt business. It just so happens that another film about the 2008 housing bubble was released this year. I wholeheartedly loved 99 Homes’ personal, more emotional approach to the housing crisis by painting the story of one struggling man in a corrupt system way more than what The Big Short did. Go watch 99 Homes.

[all gifs courtesy of moviegifsthatrock.tumblr.com]

My 15 Favorite TV Shows of 2015

Welcome to #PeakTV!

SURVIVOR

FARGO

THE AMERICANS

BOJACK HORSEMAN

MAD MEN

THE FLASH

JANE THE VIRGIN

FRESH OFF THE BOAT

TRANSPARENT

BILLY ON THE STREET

Rounding out my Favorite 15:

CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND
SILICON VALLEY
UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT
PARKS AND RECREATION
BETTER CALL SAUL

What I’m Watching: Fall 2015

The fall 2015 television season is here, right as we enter the age of “Peak TV,” with seemingly too many television series out there to consume.

At the summer Television Critics Association press tour last month, John Landgraf, the president of FX Networks, stated that “there is simply too much television” in our current landscape. According to Vox, “In 2009, there were 211 primetime scripted series on television. That number steadily climbed until in 2014 there were 371, an increase of 160 shows. FX expects the number to top 400 in 2015.” That number doesn’t even included reality television, talk shows, game shows, etc. It’s downright impossible for a person to sample every show that’s out there and once you’ve dropped a show, it becomes even harder to pick it back up.

In the opening number of the 67th Emmy Awards, host Andy Samberg tackles the issue of “Peak TV” head-on by locking himself in a TV Viewing Bunker for a year to catch up on every show:

So where does that leave me? I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll probably never watch the most critically acclaimed new series from this past summer, UnREAL and Mr. Robot, or the 2015 Emmy winners for Outstanding Comedy, Veep, and Drama, Game of Thrones (but let’s be real, Mad Men should have taken the trophy for its final season, or better yet, the real best drama series, The Americans, should have been nominated in the first place). I’ll take solace in the fact that I’m enjoying what I choose to watch. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If a TV show gives you pleasure, more power to you!

Special shout-outs to the shows I watched in the past two months: CatastropheBoJack Horseman season two, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Transparent, and Orange is the New Black season three. I highly recommend all of these excellent shows, especially BoJack Horseman, an uproarious, yet painfully bleak and honest, examination of depression, as filtered through the lens of an animated anthropomorphic horse. Will you get to watching these shows? “They’re on my list,” I’m sure you’ll say. #PeakTV

What I’m Watching:

Scream Queens – Premieres September 22 on FOX

Welcome to Ryan Murphy’s twisted take on campus slasher films! I’m cautiously optimistic about this show, with an emphasis on the cautiously. Ryan Murphy productions start with a bang (see: the first two seasons of Glee and American Horror Story. Ok, fine, maybe just season of Glee.) and they unfortunately get caught up in their own frenetic messes, ending with a whimper (see: the other seasons of Glee and American Horror Story).

Fortunately for viewers, Scream Queens doesn’t seem to have any higher aspirations than being a gleeful, campy, bloody bubblegum confection that offs a character each week to comically gruesome effect. Plus, I can’t help but root for a cast that includes Nasim Pedrad, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ariana Grande, and Nick Jonas. I mean, come on. There’s a fine line between bitchy, catty entertainment and outright meanness. Tread carefully, Ryan Murphy. Here’s hoping it’ll be fun to watch this sorority-set series inevitably fly off the rails!

Fresh Off the Boat – Returns September 22 on ABC

As the first network TV show to feature an Asian-American family in 20 years, expectations for Fresh Off the Boat were dangerously high. To make matters worse, in the weeks leading up to the premiere, Eddie Huang, who wrote the memoir on which the show is based, trash-talked his own team members for diluting his personal experiences. Thankfully, when the first episode debuted, you could feel the collective exhale of Asian America. It was a sigh of relief that this family sitcom was extremely funny, witty, and heartwarming to boot. There were no reasons for audiences to hang their heads in shame. Fresh Off the Boat made specific cultural experiences universal and reset the television defaults of what it means to be a sitcom family.

Constance Wu, who plays the matriarch Jessica Huang, addresses the issues of representation in an insightful Buzzfeed interview:

The Asian-American experience [is something] a lot of us as Asian-Americans really haven’t explored, because they lump us all into one… It’s terrifying to say, ‘This is a thing that is complex and worthy of our time,’ but it is complex, and that’s why you’re not going to always find an easy, palatable answer. I think [the show is] trying to approach that complexity in a very traditionally simplistic form. And I think if we can do that, it’s almost its own type of activism.

I’ve jokingly shared on social media that I love that I can see myself on television, as the youngest brother, Evan Huang. The sentiment is silly, but completely true. This quirky, sweet-natured, delicate boy is definitely me and it’s a feeling that I’ve cherished. It’s progress.

Survivor – Returns September 23 on CBS

I’ve never been more excited about a season of Survivor in 31 seasons than I am about Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance. And neither have any other of Survivor’s ten million viewers. Twenty returning players were voted in by America to compete for a second chance to win the million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor. After All-Stars and Heroes vs. VillainsCambodia is only the third season to feature all veteran players. This past summer, I re-watched Heroes vs. Villains, arguably Survivor‘s best, for the third time and this new season has all the potential to match HvV’s soaring highs.

Some of these players, like Borneo’s OG Kelly Wigglesworth and Australian Outback’s Jeff Varner and Kimmi Kappenberg, have waited over a decade for the opportunity to play again. Every single one of these contestants is here to WIN, ready to overcome their earlier flaws, course-correct for past mistakes, over-compensate for character flaws, underestimate and overpower the competition, and outwit, outplay, and outlast to the Final Tribal Council. The hunger is real.

Each contestant has a strong storyline going into the competition: Can Stephen Fishbach shed his overwhelmingly large target of being a Survivor Know-It-All podcast host? Will Ciera Eastin be able to convince her tribemates she’s a trustworthy player after she voted out her own mother in her previous season? Will Abi-Maria Gomes be able to cool her hot temper and play nice with others? Will Spencer “Charlie Brown” Bledsoe finally be able to kick that football set up by Chaos Kass? The list goes on… What makes this season so exciting is that each person comes in with so much baggage and so much to prove. You can read some of my thoughts on the cast here.

Peih-Gee Law

Peih-Gee Law (source: EW.com)

Who am I rooting for? In addition to the aforementioned Jeff Varner (love his cheeky energy) and Stephen Fishbach (love his quick wit), I’m pulling for for my friend, Survivor China’s Peih-Gee Law, who famously was good at Sudoku and claiming victory of the last of her tribe, ultimately achieving 5th place. Will she be able to keep her emotions in check and not make waves in the early goings of the game? If so, Peih-Gee will at least make it to the merge. In pre-game interviews, Peih-Gee talked about a smart strategy she picked up from fellow China player, Amanda Kimmel:

You have to find someone really strong […] like a Woo…who will be able to win challenges, but he’ll be kind of a target after the merge, which is fine because then I won’t be a target. Then you want somebody weaker, like maybe like Kass. They’re good to have by your side because if they want to get rid of someone who’s not good at challenges, then you’re protected. And then, these people, the weaker ones and the stronger ones, they’re the targets.

Who am I picking to win? Looking at the winners of the two previous all-star seasons, Amber Brkich and Sandra Diaz-Twine, both women entered the game as unassuming characters. They laid low and watched as the bigger targets take each other out each week. I see the same characteristics in San Juan Del Sur’s Kelley Wentworth. Although we never fully saw her game in her first season (which means neither did her competitors), she seemed smart and level-headed enough to be a savvy player. Kelley enters Cambodia without a huge target on her back, but possesses great potential. If she aligns with the right players, she could fly under the radar, make smart moves to get her to the end, and emerge victorious.

How to Get Away With Murder – Returns September 24 on ABC

To be honest, I was a bit on the fence about returning to this Shondaland series. Only Viola Davis’ magnetic and emotionally fraught tornado and Jack Falahee’s voracious sexual appetite and surprising vulnerability proved to be compelling characters. The rest of How to Get Away With Murder’s ensemble was merely beautiful set dressing. I also couldn’t stand Wes and Rebecca at all, separate or together.

Ultimately, Viola Davis is worth the price of re-admission. Her extraordinary history-making Emmy acceptance speech brought me to tears. As the first African-American woman to ever win Lead Actress in a Drama Series, her words were a powerful and inspiring indictment of the decision makers of Hollywood, highlighting how few opportunities women of color have had the chance to even compete for the title.

‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’

That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

I will keep watching to support your trailblazing work, Viola Davis. Here’s to you!

The Flash – Returns October 6 on The CW

Simply put, The Flash is fun, fun, fun. The mere thought of more adventures in Central City fills me with joy. The Flash is a winning combination of celebrating the heroics of superheroes and meaningful, emotional character relationships. Of all the shows I watched last year, I’m certain I cried the most and hardest at The Flash season one finale. Damn you, Grant Gustin, and your beautifully emotive, tear-streaked face! This upcoming year spirals further down the comic book spiral, introducing a parallel universe and the original The Flash, Jay Garrick. I’m not a superhero superfan by any means, but I’m in for whatever thrilling twists are coming our way.

American Horror Story: Hotel – Returns October 7 on FX

Oh boy, American Horror Story, where to begin? Season three (Coven) was a supreme mess with inflated dramatic stakes (If characters could be resurrected willy-nilly, what did it matter that characters died?), while season four (Freak Show) was a frightful bore that suffered from warmed-over and languid pacing.

Season five, Hotel, brings AHS into the dark hallways of the Hotel Cortez. The one shining beacon of this season is that the incredible Jessica Lange is sitting this out of this chapter. Lange has portrayed massive powerhouses, stealing every scene and chewing each piece of scenery, but over time, these power-hungry matriarchs drew from the same well one too many times. It will be interesting to watch a more ensemble-driven AHS, as anchored by Lady Gaga.

Billy on the Street – Returns October 8 on TruTV

Pop culture and yelling. #selfexplanitory
I wrote about Billy on the Street’s first season here.

Jane the Virgin – Returns October 12 on The CW

The first season of Jane the Virgin skillfully balanced the hilarious with the heartfelt, and the playfully surreal with the emotionally real. Even when the telenovela-inspired narrative engine seemed to barrel through storyline after plot twist after jaw dropping moment, Jane the Virgin never lost its way, thanks to its charming and radiant lead, Gina Rodriguez.

The world was also introduced to new comic icons in Jaime Camil’s self-absorbed Rogelio De La Vega and Anthony Mendez’ cheeky narrator. Season two promises to double down on the over-the-top telenovela world, announcing guest appearances by not only pop icon Britney Spears, but my beloved darling, Kesha (#FreedomForKesha). The Flash and Jane the Virgin both had stellar first seasons (which I wrote about) and I expect no less this year.

Plus, Jane the Virgin also featured my two favorite Emmy “For Your Consideration” campaigns for Gina Rodriguez and Jaime Camil. Jane the Virgin, you are both inspiring and freaking hilarious.

Fargo – Returns October 12 on FX

My favorite scripted series from 2014 returns. Fargo’s first season was a tightly plotted morality tale, bursting at the seams with memorably quirky characters and black-hearted humor. Fargo follows in the footsteps of its fellow FX series, American Horror Story, and resets its second season in 1979, with a new murderers row of actors taking on the series’ unique voice: Patrick Wilson. Kirsten Dunst. Jessie Plemons. Ted Danson. Jean Smart. Cristin Milioti. Nick Offerman. Kirsten Dunst’s awesomely feathered coif. Just watch the trailer below and tell me you are giddy either.

The 20 People I’m Voting In For Survivor: Second Chance

There’s no better time to be a Survivor fan! For the show’s upcoming 31st season, it’s up to America to vote for 20 returning players to return for their second shot at the game. The voting pool of is made up of 32 one-time players who have never won the game.

What’s most exciting is that each and every Survivor fan has different criteria for voting, and, as a result, a different list of people they want back on the show. Yes, there’s a gigantic recency bias (15 out of the 32 contestants are from the past 4 seasons), but I’m hoping that a nostalgia factor will give some of the old school players a boost.

Which voting bloc will win out: the millions of casual fans who’ll only vote once, or the thousands(?) of hardcore fans who will vote daily? Aside from a handful of shoo-ins (I’m looking at you, Joe Anglim), it’s honestly quite difficult to tell which combination of 20 will make the final cut.

Before I reveal my list, these are the 12 people who didn’t make my Survivor: Second Chance cut: Monica Padilla, Natalie Tenerelli, Mikayla Wingle, Troyzan Robertson, Sabrina Thompson, Brad Culpepper, Woo Hwang, Keith Nale, Joe Anglim, Mike Holloway, and Carolyn Rivera.

I initially had Worlds Apart‘s Mike Holloway in Andrew Savage’s place, as Mike has proven to be an explosive player firing on every cylinder imaginable, but I figure Mike will have more than a second chance to return to the game. Savage, not so much. Same goes for Mama C, as I put T-Bird in her place. Plus, it’s obvious either Mike or Mama C will win Worlds Apart, right?

The voting takes place daily at cbs.com/survivorsecondchance until Wednesday, May 20, 2015 at 9 pm EST.

WOMEN (in order of appearance)

Survivor_female_castaways

Kelly_WiglesworthKELLY WIGLESWORTH
Borneo, Season 1
Runner-Up

Look up “Second Chance” in the Survivor dictionary and there you’ll find Kelly’s headshot. This season’s theme was made for her. Kelly famously lost to Richard Hatch in front of over 50 million viewers by one vote. ONE VOTE. 30 seasons later, does she have what it takes to make it to the end again?

Kimmi_KappenbergKIMMI KAPPENBERG
The Australian Outback, Season 2
12th Place

I only caught a couple of episodes of the first season as it aired live on television, but I was completely hooked thanks to The Australian Outback. From triumphing in a gross food eating challenge (“I can eat a worm! I can eat a worm!”) to getting into an argument with a fellow hot head (Alicia Calaway: “I will always wave my finger in your face!”), Kimmi was a source of the second season’s memorable moments.

Teresa_CooperTERESA “T-BIRD” COOPER
Africa, Season 3
5th Place

I can’t say that I remember much of T-Bird’s game, or much of Africa (other than the drinking cow’s blood challenge and Silas “Colby 2.0” Gaither), so this is purely a vote for the nostalgia of old school players.

Peih-Gee_LawPEIH-GEE LAW
China, Season 15
5th Place

Peih-Gee was a fighter, pure and simple. As the last of her Zhan Hu tribe, she fought a scrappy uphill battle against a powerful, and ultimately, winning, alliance. Armed with a fierce personality, Peih-Gee wasn’t afraid to mix things up (see: throwing an immunity challenge to knock out a strong competitor) and confront others on their BS. Out of all the women on the list, she’s the one I’d like to see return the most. Peih-Gee will certainly make for entertaining TV.

Abi-Maria_GomesABI-MARIA GOMES
Philippines, Season 25
5th Place

Oh, Abi-Maria, you were blissfully unaware of own obnoxiousness and the viewers were all the more better for it. Has Abi-Maria learned from her previous game? Does it matter? Abi-Maria was as an entertaining a villainess as they come. Unlike past disasters like Hurricane NaOnka, who just brought a deluge of frustration onto viewers, Abi-Maria at least has spirit.

Ciera_EastinCIERA EASTIN
Blood vs. Water, Season 27
5th Place

Sure, Ciera didn’t come alive until the last third of the game, but when she did, she lit up the screen like no other. She voted her own mother out of the game, y’all. No one else in two seasons of Blood vs. Water can claim that. She forced a tie and drew rocks, and was only the second group in 30 seasons to do so. Just imagine what her gameplay could be like with her mom. It could be epic.

Tasha_FoxTASHA FOX
Cagayan, Season 28
6th Place

Tasha was a challenge beast and really came through when it mattered most, winning three individual immunities in a row. She’s a strong competitor, which is exactly what an All-Star season needs. Let’s hope she plays an even better social game and doesn’t get #StoodUp again.

Kass_McQuillenKASS McQUILLEN
Cagayan, Season 28
3rd Place

Kass is an intelligent player with a snarky sense of humor. She not only gave herself a nickname (#ChaosKass for life), but she lived up to her moniker. While Chaos Kass’ strategic moves may or may not have best the soundest, they sure were interesting and unpredictable moves and gave Survivor fans a lot to discuss and debated.

Kelley_WentworthKELLEY WENTWORTH
San Juan del Sur, Season 29
14th Place

I’m thrilled, and frankly really surprised, to see Kelley on this list. Thanks to the Blood vs. Water twist, her game was mostly straddled to cleaning up the messes made by her father, Dale. Add to that lameness, Resident (Basically a) Badass Drew got Kelley out of the game because she had seen every episode of Survivor, unlike most of the dolts her season. Let’s give her a chance to show off her skills in a better arena.

Shirin_OskooiSHIRIN OSKOOI
Worlds Apart, Season 30
8th Place

Shirin just needed to get her Survivor superfandom jitters out during her first season. With that over-the-top enthusiasm out of the way, she can work on her social game. During Worlds Apart, she was never in the driver’s seat of an alliance, so it’ll be fun to watch if she can pull off strategic maneuvers of her own.

MEN (in order of appearance)

Survivor_male_castaways

Jeff_VarnerJEFF VARNER
The Australian Outback, Season 2
10th Place

Jeff Varner was my favorite player on The Australian Outback. In the midst of all the surviving, it appeared that he was the only one out there playing the strategic game. And he was there to PLAY. Undid by a defunct rule and Kimmi’s big mouth (she told Tina that Jeff had votes cast for him previously), he was taken from us way too soon. Of all the old school players, Jeff seems to be the best equipped to navigate the extremely fast-paced game of today.

Andrew_SavageANDREW SAVAGE
Pearl Islands, Season 7
10th Place

Andrew Savage is another player who deserves a second chance, in the purest sense of the word. He was screwed out of the game by the infamous Outcasts twist, when Lil flipped upon returning to the game. Savage fit the mold of Jeff Probst’s dream alpha male, receiving the last name only treatment. I’m not certain if the nostalgia factor is as strong with him, but it’s surprising it’s taken so long to get him back.

Shane_PowersSHANE POWERS
Panama, Season 12
5th Place

Shane Powers is a larger-than-life character who needs to return. He was recklessly erratic, shockingly unpredictable, and wildly entertaining. I mean, he quit smoking cold turkey when he went on the show! He talked on a piece of wood that he called his BlackBerry (remember those?)! He asked Cirie nursing advice and showed her his junk! He fell apart at the sight of his son during the loved ones visit! We need more Shane on our televisions.

Terry_DeitzTERRY DIETZ
Panama, Season 12
3rd Place

Terry was an unstoppable Panamanian force, winning five consecutive immunity challenges. Terry will need to improve his social game the second time around, as he came off as smug father-type, and I’m willing to give him the opportunity to do so.

Stephen_FishbachSTEPHEN FISHBACH
Tocantins, Season 18
Runner-Up

I’m most excited to watch Stephen play again. He’s made a name for himself in the years following his stint on the show as a Survivor pundit, writing a blog for People.com since 2009 and as a Survivor Know-It-All, co-hosting a weekly podcast with former player Rob Cesternino for the past six seasons. As a Know-It-All, he’s claimed to be one of “the guys who know everything about Survivor except how to win the game.” I’ve also purchased and listened to Stephen and Rob’s 9+ hour audiobook, The 49 Laws of Survivor. I’m ready to see Stephen put his money where his mouth is. #BringFishBack

Jim_RiceJIM RICE
South Pacific, Season 23
12th Place

Jim Rice is a player. He’s outspoken, quick on his feet, and smart as a whip. And he was royally screwed when Cochran flinched on drawing rocks and bailed on his alliance. Jim can bring some grade-A strategy to Survivor once more.

Vytas_BaskauskasVYTAS BASKAUSKAS
Blood vs. Water, Season 27
10th Place

Blood vs. Water introduced us to the brother of Aras Baskauskas, winner of Panama. Vytas was the self-proclaimed “reformed bad boy” of Survivor and managed to charm his way out of being voted out when he was outnumbered by women after the tribe swap. Vytas has so much strategic and social potential going into the game and I look forward to him possibly playing outside of his younger brother’s golden boy shadow.

Spencer_BledsoeSPENCER BLEDSOE
Cagayan, Season 28
4th Place

Spencer, Spencer, Spencer. There is no way that this charming Charlie Brown underdog who won the hearts of millions during Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty won’t return for his second chance. Having always played with his back against the wall, it will be exciting to watch him play again, with the possibility of reversed fortunes and an upper hand.

Jeremy_CollinsJEREMY COLLINS
San Juan del Sur, Season 29
10th Place

One of the few bright spots in his season, known for his “surround and drown” strategy. Many Survivor fans, including myself, were envisioning an epic Josh vs. Jeremy showdown, and were floored when the two were cut down in 11th and 12th place, respectively. What will Jeremy’s game look like without his wife, Val, and with players with an actual keen sense of the game?

Max_DawsonMAX DAWSON
Worlds Apart, Season 30
14th Place

The Survivor professor needs redemption! After a fairly dismal social game cost him the game pre-jury, I’m willing to give him a second shot. I’m sure he’ll know exactly how to adjust his social strategy after having seen himself flame out on television.