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]

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]

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.

The Two Mad Men Sites Every Fan Needs To Bookmark

Mad Men ends its groundbreaking seven season run tonight and I think it’s safe to say that no other television show on the air today has been written about more than Matt Weiner’s opus. The immeasurable amount of spilled digital ink includes insightful weekly reviews from my favorite television critics: HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz, Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan, among others.

Mad Men is so richly devised in its characters, so deeply rooted in history, and so immaculately crafted in its attention to period detail, that it allows endless points of critical entry, from an earnest celebration of Betty Draper to a deep dive into its iconic soundtrack. In celebration of its series finale, I’d like to highlight the two Mad Men companion pieces that have brought me such joy and have enriched my viewing experience throughout the years.

MAD MEN SCREENSHOTS WITH THINGS DRAWN ON THEM

This perfectly-titled Tumblr is an ideal example of ‘what you see is what you get,’ and, in this case, what you get is pretty fan-f*cking-tastic. On the turn of a dime, Mad Men can go from existential despair to gust-busting comedy, and these lovingly crafted screenshots with added pointed commentary illustrate that successful juxtaposition. Hilarity ensues with every screenshot.

From updating soon-to-be iconic imagery to the present day…

Mad Men Screenshot Peggy

Source: madmenwiththingsdrawnonthem.tumblr.com/post/118142036097

to illuminating the show’s social commentary…

Mad Men Screenshot Joan

Source: madmenwiththingsdrawnonthem.tumblr.com/post/115900374309

to poking fun at beloved characters…

Mad Men Screenshot Pete

Source: madmenwiththingsdrawnonthem.tumblr.com/post/117325162698

to creating flat-out funny memes, Mad Men Screenshots with Things Drawn On Them hit a sweet spot we didn’t know existed.

Mad Men Screenshot Don

Source: madmenwiththingsdrawnonthem.tumblr.com/post/117249564836

TOM & LORENZO’S MAD STYLE

Mad Men‘s Emmy-nominated costume designer, Janie Bryant, is an impeccable storyteller, not only in the way she chooses period-appropriate clothing in the ever-changing 1960s, but in the way she tailors each outfit to the specific moods and storylines of each character. Tom & Lorenzo, two brilliant fashion and pop culture bloggers, have broken down each episode of Mad Men, analyzing each chapter through the fine lens of its costumes and production design. Every detail is illuminated, from how specific colors suit a theme or motif, to the historical context of a particular look, to tracing the arc of a character through clothing; and while it cannot be certain whether each moment is intentional, their analyses are no less fascinating.

I’ll let their deeply insightful writing speak for themselves. In the season seven episode, “Lost Horizon,” Joan Holloway finds herself in the midst of rampant sexual harassment at McCann. Here’s how Tom & Lorenzo break down one of her scenes:

And this may get us in trouble, but we have to point out how she shifted gears when it became obvious that she had a problem and needed to turn to the men above her for help:

Mad Style TLO

Source: tomandlorenzo.com/2015/05/mad-style-lost-horizon/

We haven’t seen her wear a dress that eye-popping or focus-pulling (not to mention tight) since that first humiliating meeting at McCann. Joan does not do these things accidentally (nor does Janie Bryant). As politically incorrect as it may be to point this out, when Joan came up against male chauvinism and needed to combat it, her first impulse was to put on a tight dress and ask some men for help. This is one of several reasons why we think Peggy will do better at McCann than Joan did. She has a better developed set of tools for dealing with things. Joan’s ways have always been the old ways and even now, with all the changes in her life, she reverts to them when she’s in trouble. After all, the most consistent repeating costume motif for Joan has always been roses on a black background. There was a time when it clearly evoked romantic and sexual disappointment in her life, but by now, it merely signals the shit she constantly has to put up with from men. She wore a very similar dress last season when it became clear just how much she hated Don at the time.And it makes us a little sad that this is probably the last one we’ll see. The last Joan Holloway Rose Dress of Disappointment.

Understand, we’re not accusing her of anything nefarious or even of consciously trying to play these men to get what she wants. She’s not trying to be sexy and she sure as hell isn’t inviting (or deserved) sexual harassment. It’s just innate with her. You present yourself a certain way when you want something from a man. “My mother raised me to be admired.” She needed help, so a pussy bow and an A-line skirt wasn’t going to cut it.

Tom & Lorenzo’s Mad Style is a richly unique and wholly fascinating look at Mad Men, illuminating how a character’s outer life reflects their inner life. I cannot recommend these amazing articles enough.

— — —

One last thing I’d share: As I combed through my past Mad Men-related Facebook posts, I uncovered these limerick gems I’d written in 2010 because why not. Please enjoy!

There once was a woman named Joan,
Who’d worked her way up on her own.
Her husband’s abusive.
Her joy is elusive.
And lying she does not condone.

There once was the new guy named Stan,
Who thought he was nothing but man.
He’d tease and he’d flirt,
And he’d take off his shirt.
But Peggy did not like his plan.

There once was an ad man named Pete.
With others, he’d often compete.
He worked night and day,
To make accounts stay,
And never would admit defeat.

Your Handy Guide to American Idol 14’s Top 11 Finalists

As a new Empire rises, another Idol continues its slow descent. This is season fourteen of American Idol. Fox was smart to schedule to launch the fledgling primetime soap behind its veteran reality competition, giving the buzzy newcomer a strong marketing push right out of the gate. Empire‘s audience went up every week it aired, with March 18 finale reaching a height of 17.6 million viewers (6.9 A18-49), becoming the top-rated new series in a decade. In comparison, Idol‘s most recent airing on March 19 brought in 8.51 million viewers (1.8 A18-49).

With Empire finished for the spring, the show must go on. American Idol expands into two hours, featuring a new crop of fresh-faced contestants singing for your votes. Ever the dutiful Idol fan, here is my ranking of this season’s Top 11 finalists, from my most favorite to least favorite (and one of the worst Idol finalists in history). Click on the singer’s name to watch their best performance thus far.

Idol_Sarina-JoiSarina-Joi Crowe: Before we get to the real Top 11, I’d like to take a moment to pour one out for arguably the most talented singer this year, Sarina-Joi Crowe, who was eliminated after an uncomfortably sharp rendition of One Republic’s “Love Runs Out.” Damn you, Ryan Tedder! Why is this elimination so heartbreaking? Sarina-Joi possessed more potential than most of the remaining finalists will ever realize on this show. Poor Sarina-Joi finally made it as a finalist after auditioning for four years, only to be taken from us way too soon.

Idol_TyannaTyanna JonesI hate it when the judges incessantly and incredulously parade around the ages of young contestants during critiques (“Dude, you’re only 16 years old!”). But with Tyanna, DUDE, she’s only 16 years old! Tyanna owns the stage like a consummate professional. While she’s unfortunately not invincible, she’s able to swim through her performances effortlessly. Her performance of Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope,” for example, was a breezy joyfest. Tyanna exudes a cool and commanding confidence while dripping with a bold panache. And don’t forget: she’s only 16 years old!

Idol_ClarkClark BeckhamClark is the very definition of blue-eyed soul, as filtered through the Idol lens. He’s a talented and handsome,22-year-old street performer whose musicality shines through with both the piano and the guitar. I’ve taken issue with many of Idol‘s WGWG (White Guys with Guitars) in the past (see winners Lee DeWyze, Phillip Phillips, and Scotty McCreery), but Clark’s undeniable respect for the music he’s playing sets him apart. While, at times, his performances may have erred on the side of being too slick, Clark continued to show great promise with his recent acoustic arrangement of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning.”

[To be quite honest, the order of the next five contestants, from Joey down to Quentin, is pretty interchangeable. Heck, I’ve changed it three times over the course of writing this list. It just goes to show you that with a talent field this deep and this even, song choice is crucial. The wrong song could make or break you. RIP SJC.]

Idol_JoeyJoey Cook: Here’s Miss Quirk with a capital Q. During the semi-finals rounds, I wasn’t buying what Joey was so peculiarly selling and I rolled my eyes at every one of her quirks: the hair touching, the wide side-eyed wonderment, the irksome garbled vowel pronunciation. Everything changed with her performance of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” Armed with a Postmodern Jukebox arrangement, all of her stylistic choices felt organic and her stage presence became fully realized. It all just clicked. The more Joey takes risks and taps into the grounded, emotional core of a song, the better.

Idol_QaasimQaasim Middleton: Qaasim is a vibrant showman. Don’t believe him? Just watch. Qaasim is a strong singer. Don’t believe him? Well…actually, it’s ok to doubt him on that one. He’s a firecracker of an entertainer and his passionate command of the stage generates enough electricity to light the entire Idoldome. Unfortunately, stripped of his theatrics, Qaasim’s vocals don’t quite measure up. I call it the Adedapo Effect. Remember season 10’s Naima Adedapo? Her reggae-inspired numbers included dance breakdowns, rapping, and (on the live tour) even cartwheels. However, once she put her vocals front-and-center, she was swiftly voted out. We’ll see how long Qaasim can hang in there by the skin of his dancing. I am going to enjoy watching him breathe life into each performance along the way.

Idol_JaxJaxJax has long been considered a front-runner, but I’m just not fully in her corner yet. While some may hear a distinctly rich timbre, I hear a greatly affected slinkiness and whereas some may see a confident performer with a flair for the dramatic, I see a young musician trying hard to make an impression. But hey, I did a full 180-degrees on season 10’s Haley Reinhart, so stranger things could happen with my opinion on Jax.

Idol_AdannaAdanna Duru: Without a doubt, Adanna has a powerful voice, throwing her heart and soul into every performance. Her leave-it-all-on-the-stage attitude is refreshing, but she needs to keep her emotions in check. When her wild stage presence gets the best of her, Adanna’s pop/R&B vocals are tricky to maneuver, but when she taps into that fire, her talent radiates with heat.

Idol_QuentinQuentin AlexanderOne word comes to mind when thinking about Quentin: #haunting. Here’s another: #moody. Quentin is a powerful and riveting presence with a keen sense of who he is as an artist. Not to mention, his carefully curated New Orleans-inspired fashion sense always makes a statement. Quentin’s velvety vocals compliment his suave persona, but he also possesses an unfortunate tendency to waver on long notes.

Idol_RayvonRayvon Owen: Rayvon is a smooth, smiley, and sleepy (read: boring) singer. Graced with a buttery falsetto, Rayvon knows exactly where and when to deploy it to its greatest effect, but onstage he simply meanders. Rayvon is blessed with one of the best voices left in the competition, but his performances desperately need substance, depth, and, most importantly, a jolt of urgency. Vocal dexterity alone won’t propel him past his competitors for very long.

Idol_NickNick Fradiani: Old Man Fradiani is an ancient 29 years old and in his most recent performance of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” (song choice, people, song choice) revealed that he gives off major Chris Daughtry vibes. Luckily for him, his age works to his advantage. Nick’s Alice Radio adult contemporary performances are greatly polished, allowing his maturity to shine through.

Idol_MaddieMaddie WalkerMaddie is a Country Pageant Princess, whose big, bright eyes can’t help but illuminate the fact that there’s nothing really behind them. She can hit the notes and voice possesses a sweet twang, but she hasn’t quite formed her artistic identity past that country inflection. She’s young, impressionable, and is nothing more than an imitation of the genre she adores.

Idol_DanielDaniel Seavey: Let me tell you a story. The summer after I finished first grade, my family and I went on a Caribbean cruise. I entered a talent competition and sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” a cappella. Halfway through the performance, I blanked on the lyrics and the emcee got the entire audience to sing along with me to close out the number. Cute, right? I won first place. (As did everyone else in the talent show, but that’s beside the point.) This, my friends, is Daniel Seavey.

He’s a 15-year-old kid who is in way over his head. Daniel has coasted along on his cuteness factor, which he, himself, admitted to having. Ick. His performances are simply excruciating. Daniel’s a one-trick foal still going through puberty. Watch as he attempts and fails to hit high notes! Marvel at his over-rehearsed movements as he “feels” the music! Witness him mumble through forgotten lyrics! Daniel should have waited five years to audition for Idol. There’s talent down there somewhere, but thanks to his string of consistently painful performances, Daniel Seavey is one of the worst American Idol finalists in history. This kid does not deserve to be on my television.

Man, what a downer. Let’s end on a positive note, Sarina-Joi Crowe SLAYING Jessie J’s “Mamma Knows Best”:

Oscars 2015: Was Everything Awesome?

48 minutes into the 218-minute-long 2015 Oscars telecast, indie pop darlings Tegan and Sara took over the stage along with The Lonely Island, Devo’s Mark Motherbaugh, Will Arnett in a Batman costume, Questlove in a Robin costume, an Awesome Possum, and a whole slew of break-dancing construction workers. And Oprah finally felt what it was like to be, well, Oprah’d (YOU get a LEGO® Oscar statue! And YOU get a LEGO® Oscar statue!). The frenzied Dolby Theatre was a dayglo explosion to behold. Did the rest of the evening share the same jubilant energy? Were the 87th Academy Awards, in the words of The Lego Movie (that snub still stings, by the way), indeed, awesome?!

Source: mattsgifs.com

Source: mattsgifs.com

Yes and no.

Was the Lady Gaga tribute to The Sound of Music awesome? For the most part, surprisingly yes. Was it necessary, especially at 3 hours and 45 minutes in, with only 15 minutes scheduled left? HELL NO.

Was Neil Patrick Harris a decent host? Yes. Did all of NPH’s bits [Insert tighty-whities Birdman joke here] land? Sadly, no.

While NPH’s self-satisfaction maybe not have worked for everyone, I was more entertained by him than by other dull hosts of the past. This mixed bag of quality was par for the course for the evening: a typically bloated Oscars telecast with an atypically uneven NPH.

When Neil Patrick Harris was first announced as host, he seemed like the perfect fit, with two Emmy Award and four Tony Award hosting gigs under his belt. Unfortunately, Harris succumbed to the pressures of hosting the Oscars; the need perform for both the stiff and stodgy audience in the Dolby Theatre and the audience at home looking for a bit of bite. Why else would we see the usually endearing showman come across as alternately smirky and uncomfortable, with intentional groaners galore (“This next presenter is so lovely you could eat her up with a spoon: Reese Witherspoon.”)?

Neil Patrick Harris seemed off his game and you could see his flop sweat throughout the evening. Taking a cue from Ellen Degeneres’ in-the-audience bits from last year (remember the pizza delivery and the selfie seen ’round the world?), Harris failed to recreate any of that spark. The seat filler bit was awkward, getting David Oyelowo to read a punchline about the Annie remake was forced, and don’t even get me started on wrangling Octavia Spencer to keep her eyes on that damn lockbox. Look, I get that Harris is a die-hard magic lover, but his Oscar “predictions” had too much wasted buildup and way too little payoff. Poor Octavia Spencer. Poor David Oyelowo. It was commendable trying to rope in as many actors and actresses of color into the proceedings, but these attempts fell flat.

That being said, NPH still had some charms and I would much rather watch a bloated Oscars peppered with moments of joy (more LEGO® Oscar statues, please!) than a boring one. The underwear Birdman homage was unexpected and many of his jokes worked, for instance, opening the ceremony by stating, “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest—sorry, brightest.” The opening number, written by the Frozen songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, was delightful, especially the Into the Woods-inspired Jack Black rap, though the song wasn’t as strong as his other award show numbers. And I’m afraid we’re fast approaching our limit for song-and-dance showmen (Seth MacFarlane, Hugh Jackman, etc.). It’s too bad that Lin-Manuel Miranda is tied up with Hamilton, his hip-hop musical about the life and times of Alexander Hamilton, and couldn’t lend his superb lyrical skills as he did for the epic closing numbers of the 2011 and 2013 Tony Awards.

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Source: vulture.com

The most memorable moments of the evening stemmed from the sincerity of the Oscar winners themselves, which balanced out Neil Patrick Harris’ snark. From Common and John Legend’s soul-stirring performance of Selma‘s “Glory” and the inspiring Oscar acceptance speech that followed:

Recently John and I got to go to Selma and perform “Glory” on the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the Civil Rights Movement marched on 50 years ago. This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation but now it’s a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South Side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression, to those in Hong Kong, protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion and elevated with love for all human beings.

to the win of Best (very liberally) Adapted Screenplay by The Imitation Game‘s Graham Moore who spoke directly to vulnerable youth:

I tried to commit suicide at 16 and now I’m standing here. I would like for this moment to be for that out there who feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere. You do. Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message along.

to Boyhood‘s Patricia Arquette championing equal pay for women:

To every woman who gave birth to every citizen and taxpayer of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.

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Source: mtv.tumblr.com

to Whiplash‘s J.K. Simmons simply urging people to reach out and call up a parent, the evening brought to light a span of important issues facing today’s world. The night was a triumph in moving and effective acceptance speeches.

As for the awards themselves, each of the Best Picture nominees took home at least one trophy, the first time this has happened since the field was expanded from five nominees in 2009. I had seen all eight Best Picture nominees this year, and although Whiplash was my favorite film of the bunch by a slim margin, I was hoping that Boyhood could pull out the win over the self-aggrandizing Birdman.* Alas, as of late, the Academy loves movies about movies (see The Artist, Argo).

This was the Academy’s chance to recognize a revolutionary work, not only for its narrative ambition, but as an exercise in patience. Boyhood makes a profound statement that life’s character-building is a series of minute layers, not solely the sum of cathartic spectacles. Ultimately, Richard Linklater’s masterpiece reminds us that in life, not all triumphs can be, or even need to be, recognized with an award.

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Source: jenxlawrence.tumblr.com

* Perhaps I’m the Oscars curse? The last time I watched all Best Picture nominees was the 2011 Oscars, when The Kingzzz Speech robbed The Social Network of its rightful win. Whoops.

What I watched in January 2015

Even in the seemingly freezing wasteland of January, warmth could be found all over television. What was once a month of dull month of shows returning from winter hiatus, is now a blossoming time for premieres and finales. Here’s a look at what I watched in January 2015. Some spoilers to follow, of course.

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In streaming news, I finally joined my generation of millennials and signed up for Amazon Prime. What started out as a free trial to take advantage of the 2-day shipping for the holidays and to stream Survivor: Fiji (the last of Survivor‘s soon-to-be 30 seasons I’ve yet to watch), ended up as a thrilling deep-dive into the best show on television, The Americans.

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Source: uptownhags.tumblr.com

The Americans is a must-watch. All at once a sleek spy thriller and an unexpectedly moving examination of marriage and family. The Cold War-set character-driven drama is exhilarating, smart, extremely well-acted, and features lots and lots of fun wigs. It is the 1980s after all.

The first season explores what it means to be married. Married couple Elizabeth Jennings (a striking and determined Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are living in American suburbia, working undercover as KGB agents. This union is an arranged marriage by Mother Russia and to keep up appearances of family life, Elizabeth and Philip eventually had two children of their own, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). However, once familiar territory becomes dangerous when real emotions develop and the two see each other in new light. This is marriage as spycraft, marriage as a cold war. Complications ensue when Stan Beeman (the masterful Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent working in counter-intelligence with marital baggage of his own, moves in right next door. Howdy, neighbor!

A Soviet mole tells an FBI agent, “You Americans think everything is white and black. For us, everything is gray.” Throughout The Americans, Elizabeth and Philip encounter shifting allegiances and dodge shifting moral compasses. Relationships morph, lies are bred, and compromises abound. Double agents become triple agents. Confidants become conflicted. In a world of espionage, nothing ever has just one meaning. This is a powerful and thoughtful show that wrestles with severe emotional stakes: Can I trust you?

In the second season, the series explores what it means to believe and fight for something much larger than yourself. The Americans shows the weight of collateral damage, in particular, the toll of espionage on the family unit. Emotional costs do not go ignored. What does it mean to be a parent harboring life-changing secrets from your children and how do children cope with the realization that they’ll just become their parents? How far can you fight for what you believe in while still maintaining your humanity?

I HIGHLY recommend giving The Americans a chance. The first two 13-episode seasons are available for streaming on Amazon Prime. If I can binge-watch 26 episodes in one month, you can too.What are you waiting for? GO!

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I celebrated the season finale of American Horror Story: Freak Show, not because I praised its artistic merit or thought-provoking themes, but because of the sheer and simple relief that this languid melodrama was finally over. FX’s horror anthology has suffered diminishing returns, peaking with its second season, Asylum.

While Jessica Lange remains a national treasure, she has been given nothing but retreads of her earlier characters. What worked so perfectly with the Asylum finale is that we cared about the Lange’s Sister Jude. We were given the gift of a moving redemption arc. What worked so poorly with the Freak Show finale is that I simply did not care about Lange’s Elsa Mars at all. Neither her thirst for Hollywood stardom, nor her passion for her freak show family, nor her shame over her tragic snuff film past made me compassionate for her plight. When Wes Bentley’s supernatural carny spirit took Elsa’s life in the season’s final moments, I merely shrugged.

Color me less than excited about the next season of American Horror Story.

At the very least, American Horror Story: Freak Show gave us Finn Witrock’s devilishly handsome serial killer Dandy Mott. As Angela Bassett’s three-breasted Desiree Dupree hissed at him during the finale, “You may look like a motion picture dreamboat, but you’re the biggest freak of them all!” Farewell, Dandy and Desiree, you were the few shining stars of this dim season.

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Source: realmenteborroso.tumblr.com

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Jane the Virgin had a gigantic January, with Gina Rodriguez winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Series, Musical or Comedy, the first-ever Golden Globe for The CW. Rodriguez’s heartfelt and moving speech proved why she won the hearts of the HFPA voters and fans alike:

This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes. My father used to tell me to say every morning to myself it’s a great day. I can and I will. Well Dad, today’s a great day. I can and I did.

In the first new episode of Jane the Virgin that aired after the Golden Globes, The CW used the onscreen hashtag #ICanAndIDid as a celebration of Rodriguez’s achievement. On the show itself, with another onscreen hashtag, the political became personal. Jane’s grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll), took a nasty fall down a flight of stairs when Petra’s devious wheelchair-bound mother pushed her (Gasp! Petra’s mother can walk?! Let’s not forget this is a telenovela send-up). While Alba recovered in the hospital, the doctors informed Jane’s mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), about medical repatriation:

Your mother is in the country illegally. She doesn’t have insurance and the hospital can’t afford to absorb the cost of her care. We will have to notify I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and they will deport her to Venezuela where she can continue to receive care if he needs it.

Xiomara, not to mention most of Jane‘s viewers, was stunned by this revelation. Then, this happened:

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Source: janegifs.tumblr.com

Jane the Virgin made a bold statement about #ImmigrationReform by bringing the policy to harsh light, even when seen through the show’s playful onscreen text. Jane the Virgin‘s own Diane Guerrero herself revealed in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that her parents were deported to Columbia when she was 14 years old. By using the plight of the sympathetic Villanueva family, the series brought compassion to an important issue.

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January welcomed the return of Girls and Looking, two high-profile, low-rated HBO comedies.

On Girls, Andrew Rannells’ Elijah continues to steal the entire damn show. Rannells was promoted to series regular for this season and the show has used his snark in strategic, yet mightily effective ways, as a breath of fresh, salty air to cut through all the self-pitying of Hannah and her crew. Rannells also demonstrated his biting wit and wicked sense of humor on an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, an interview so hilarious, I watched it twice in a row. (Watch parts one and two NOW.)

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Source: latenightseth.tumblr.com

Regarding Looking, I am firmly on #TeamRitchie (the beautifully grounded Raul Castillo), though Kevin (Russell Tovey) does have that unmistakable charm and that damn British accent. In the episode “Looking for Results,” Kevin and Patrick (Jonathan Groff) spend time getting to know each other intimately, outside of their affair, and share potentially embarrassing stories of their childhood crushes.

I read many episodic television reviews to enhance my viewing experience. In particular, I love Brandon Norwalk’s Looking reviews at The A.V. Club that situate the series within the larger gay experience. His thoughts on Kevin and Patrick’s date conversations, formative childhood stories as shared gay conversation, really spoke to me:

The episode is deeply rooted in history, particularly this universal gay formative experience of knowing you have to keep a secret before you even understand what it is. Gay people start out alone in a way. They start out apart from community.

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Here’s an SAT analogy for you:
Parks and Recreation : “Ron and Leslie” :: Mad Men : “The Suitcase”

In its flash-forward farewell season, Parks and Recreation slammed us with the falling-out of its two powerhouses, as the ever-optimistic liberal Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and staunch libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) fought over the development of Pawnee land. The struggle between the two titans climaxed in “Ron and Leslie,” a bottle episode that rivaled Mad Men’s stand-out episode, “The Suitcase.”

In “The Suitcase,” while barreling through a single night of stubbornness, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) shared a profound intimacy and worked out rooted issues that were keeping them apart both professionally and personally. In “Ron and Leslie,” while barreling through a single night of stubbornness, Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope shared a profound intimacy and worked out rooted issues that were keeping them apart both professionally and personally.

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Source: thatstupidache.tumblr.com

From Leslie’s first interview for the parks department, to the admission that Ron left the parks department because he missed his friends, to the fact that Ron openly admitted that he would take a job in national government to be with said friends again, their personal confessions spoke volumes about their journey together. The epic reconciliation of Ron and Leslie reached the heart-swelling emotional heights of Leslie and Ben Wyatt’s (Adam Scott) wedding and Andy (Chris Pratt) and April’s (Aubrey Plaza) wedding. With truly resonant emotional stakes and a deep-seated respect for each other, Ron and Leslie’s friendship is a love story of the ages. I just know I’ll be out of tears by the time this show wraps up in less than a month.

In the episode, “Treat Yo Self 2017,” Donna Meagle (Retta) and Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) revived their infamous tradition of pampering one’s self and took it all the way to Beverly Hills. Not only did the two witness Josh Groban ordering a roll of own sushi, but they also shared a heart-to-heart about Tom’s love life. I tweeted Donna’s sincere advice, which unsurprisingly resonated with fans all over the internet.

When Parks and Recreation leaves the airwaves, the warm and fuzzies will live on in the generous fan community. Waffles for everyone!

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Saturday Night Live is enjoying a particularly robust season, with the additions of Weekend Update co-anchor Michael Che, resident Young Person Pete Davidson, and soon-to-be-Ghostbuster Leslie Jones. After last season’s too-bloated-to-function cast, this year’s cast members have found a steady comedy groove, with stronger sketch comedy and less reliance on pop culture. Alas, if only the WU team of Che and Head Writer Colin Jost clicked.

J.K. Simmons failed to make an impression as a host despite being a strong actor, with the show most likely focusing all its attention on its upcoming star-studded 40th Anniversary Special. While Blake Shelton couldn’t break out of his country persona, rendering him an inept and inert host, Kevin Hart’s fully committed and manic energy made him quite an impressive host his second time around.

I dare you to not be charmed by Kevin Hart in this frenzied “Listening Party” sketch.

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And in other shows…

Shondaland reopened its gates and How to Get Away with Murder attempted to steal the spotlight from buzzy newcomer Empire. Unfortunately, the return of the Viola Davis Show was nothing more than a glorified recap episode. Yes, the HTGAWM winter finale happened nine weeks ago, but did we really have to relive every bloody moment? And least the spinning cheerleader was gone.

American Idol also returned to little fanfare, with last year’s judging panel of Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr., and Keith Urban left intact. Thankfully, my prayers have finally been answered: Randy “The Dawg” Jackson has left the fading juggernaut once and for all.

And last, but certainly not least, The Flash heralded in the first-ever openly gay supervillain in Andy Mientus’ Pied Piper and boy was his introduction a doozy.

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Source: lrisallens.tumblr.com