On A Dan Harmon-less “Community”

Can a showrunner leaving a TV show ruin a Saturday? I mean it’s JUST a TV show! And Saturday’s are a valuable commodity. You can’t just go ruining them left and right.

I won’t go so far as to say that Dan Harmon getting, in essence, fired from “Community,” my television obsession, ruined my Saturday… but it was a shock to my system this morning.

It was even more of a shock to my system when I read this Tumblr post. Because Harmon is so darn honest. I appreciate honesty. Let’s go ahead and be honest with him – we won’t get a straight answer from Sony on this, ever. Maybe in a documentary on television that airs on PBS 40 years from now. Maybe…

But Harmon is so frank, so funny and so… hurt. I don’t know Harmon as a showrunner very well. I’m not a showrunner guy and I tend to avoid showrunner interviews. If you put Dan Harmon and Stephen Moffat in a room I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you which was which. (Until they spoke, at which point I would say Moffat was “the Britishy one!” I’m an idiot.)

That said, I know Harmon’s work. I know that episode’s I love most could only have been pushed through by Harmon and those writers who are (or were) loyal to him. I know that a post I read a little further down on his Tumblr helped in some way to get me over my “writer’s block” (which doesn’t exist) and get me writing. Granted it’s about him and his show, but it’s a start. Write about what makes you passionate…

I’ll just say this. I know NBC and Sony think that episode’s like the one that was thrown away at 8 pm this past Thursday, where the Greendale Seven run around for the whole episode as 8-bit avatars in a racist video game, do nothing for them. These Harmon-heav episodes don’t bring in new viewers. They only appease old ones who expect “Community” to keep going higher over the top for them.

Well, that may be true for some. My first Community episode? The season 1 finale, which I caught randomly. A “normal” epsidoe which NBC promoted heavily and which featured not just a love triangle but like a love nonagon. Wasn’t interested. Just some NBC show with the guy from “The Soup.”

The next episode I caught? “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” Weird. Sad. Laugh-out-loud funny. Hard to follow. Heavy on pop psychology. Referencing “Lost.” Animated in stop motion. It was utterly Harmonic. And I fell in love.

It I hadn’t seen that episode, hadn’t fallen in love with “Commnunity” yes, it’s likely that “Journey to the Center of Hawkethorne,” and not the other episodes that aired Thursday night, that would have been what got me caught in Community’s web.

I’m sure the new guys will run a perfectly funny, competent ship. I’ll still watch. Saturday’s not ruined, and neither is “Community.” But I won’t hide my disspoinment either. Sony wants to get its show to syndication, yay, but it seems blind to what will make people want to watch the show in syndication 10 years down the line. Which, to be fair, is probably not something they’re all that concerned about. As long as they can sell it.

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New To Dungeons & Dragons? (Or Something You Love Others Might Not?) OWN It!

Alright so, when last I wrote about Dungeons & Dragons, I took the following approach: “The more flippant the better!” Or as Cole Porter said, “Be a clown! Be a clown! All the world loves a clown!”

It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying my initial foray into this new world of role-playing and dungeoneering and such – I was, very much. I felt an immediate investment in my character (one that’s only grown as I’ve fleshed him out and given him some much-needed spunk); I was immediately in awe of the creativity afforded the Dungeon Master and found that person’s role as a storyteller and facilitator in this construct fascinating; and I even liked just running around yelling that I was shooting arrows and then rolling D20s for four hours as our DM taught us how to handle combat.

But – and here’s where the jokey attitude comes from, I think – though I wouldn’t admit it, there was always a sort of cynical rejection of the treacly sincerity that comes with the whole “creative-nerd-kid-finds-a-community-in-D&D” narrative. It’s like antibodies rejecting a foreign object that was only sent into help. “What are you, you thing? Get out, you don’t belong here!”

And I’m not a particularly cynical person on the whole either. Despite that, I think your first instinct when jumping whole-heartedly into something you previously thought was really nerdy is to pretend that your whole heart’s not really in it, even if it is. Act like you’re a cynic. Let the jokes fly.

So just for a second, before I let another joke fly, let me be straight with you: Dungeons & Dragons on Sunday is what I look forward to every week.

This is readily apparent to the people I play with. I am REALLY enthusiastic. My Dungeon Master (who is also my editor, James) thinks its hilarious that our Sunday sessions keep getting cut short (because of other players’ commitments), a foregone conclusion that makes it abundantly clear when we’re wrapping up that I REALLY want to play longer. We keep only getting in one or two fights (fights take forever!) a week, and its so obvious that I’m chomping at the bit to get some actual momentum going that James promised he’d be sure to get in a longer session (something I never in a million years thought I’d want; when I’m not watching a movie, I am so impatient) so I could feel what it’s like to stick with an adventure for a while.

And so this Saturday, we’re doing a “marathon” session, a one-off adventure with new characters that will kick off at noon and be done by the time we get back in our cars and return to our respective lives around midnight. Ten hours, not so bad (says the fresh-faced kid whose never played more then three hours in a row and’ll probably be gasping for mercy by hour six.)

If you’d asked me when I was creating my first character or playing my first adventure only six months ago whether I would voluntarily take multiple hours out of my life to create a SECOND character that I would use one time and one time ONLY, I would’ve responded in turn by asking how much of a nerd you think I am! Jeez!

And yet, here I am… His name is Lukas Eko. He’s a dwarf paladin. In my mind, he is a combination of Luke Cage, the Marvel superhero with bulletproof skin, and Mister Eko, the African druglord-turned-priest from Lost. Hence his name. On paper, he’s a level six hit-point monster whose purpose in life is to soak up damage and keep others in my party out of danger – which is, I feel, rather Eko/Cage-like.

I am immensely proud of him, and playa hasn’t even emerged fully-formed from my mind into the world-at-large. Not until Saturday. Then he unleashes his drawven fury on all manner of… I don’t know what yet.

But am I ashamed of him? I can puff my chest out here on the Internet with sufficient time to gather courage, but confronted head-on with a skeptical onlooker, scoffing at me as I create said dwarf paladin on a weeknight and ask aloud what magic helmet would most benefit me in battle… yeah I’m a little ashamed. Maybe a lot ashamed.

This isn’t hypothetical postulation, mind you. This actually happened. We all got together Tuesday night to create our new characters, and someone new in our lives, a non-player we’re just getting to know as a group, stopped by to pick something up.

One of us who’s been playing for what I think is fourteen years proudly explained to our befuddled guest that we were creating characters for a D&D adventure! The guest looked at us like lepers, in the way of the unenlightened. (Essentially, how I looked at James seven months ago when he tried to explain it to me.)

As our spokesperson gleefully laid out what it was we were accomplishing by writing out character attributes on a big Scantron and asking each other about magical items, I tried my hardest to take on the properties of the couch fabric behind me in an act of failed camouflage. “Don’t incriminate me in this!” my slouching shoulders pleaded silently.

So I say this with a somewhat heavy heart – one filled with the regret that something I have come to legitimately enjoy, something that brightens my life as a young, work-drone adult is also something that makes me want to disappear whenever I’m caught red-handed with my tiny, plastic archer figure in hand. I say screw all that man! Screw the regret and the shame.

Dungeons & Dragons is fun, fascinating and, forget the geek cliché, truly rewarding for those invested in it. But the thing that has most drawn me in, and it was bound to really, is the structure the “game” provides for players and dungeon masters to create unbounded by the structures of reality.

Yeah there’s structure in the form of standard rules, but from what I’ve seen, that structure is there to let good DM’s (the ones who really know what they’re doing) play with that structure, subvert that structure, and, sometimes, in the greatest moments, completely ignore that structure, in the same way a good director will both use and abuse genre convention to produce something singular in vision. Because of this, D&D, a platform for high fantasy – something I’ve never really been able to connect to all that well – surprises me anew every Sunday because it connects on a human level that I couldn’t have previously imagined.

Yes, my exposure to D&D has been, as of yet, limited – I can count the number of sessions I’ve played on my hands, I think, and those have all been with the same Dungeon Master, my friend and colleague James. I’ve also watched a few sessions with another DM at the reins. Still I feel the possibilities, rich and boundless, coursing through the interactions we have playing D&D. It’s a time when we are allowed to lay down what inhibitions we have about what good storytelling, and “amateur” storytelling, can be, and just… go with it. Exhileratingly enough, we do.

In my creative partnership with James, I’ve always thought of myself as the more creative type – James is practical, logical, and grounded where I am whimsically soaring through the fluffy storytelling clouds of my own making. That’s the way I’ve always percieved.

Playing D&D with James as DM has actually radically shifted this dynamic. James’s ability to use a pre-defined structure to create inspired twists and turns on a short schedule, while keeping the needs of his audience (the players) in check has, if anything, inspired me as a storyteller.

An example from our weekly campaign to illustrate my point: when – after our most recent encounter with a mob of humans we met in the hallway of a creepy mansion, who had murdered a group of elven children we had assumed rationally were already dead since we had met their ghosts only minutes before – James informed us that as we chased the mob, we suddenly woke to find that we were all passed out on the floor with our weapons by our sides, my mind exploded with possibilities.

You see, we had just spent an hour playing through an encounter that WASN’T EVEN REAL – as we stood up, I realized that James had just let us, in a way, see an imprint of the massacre that had occurred where we were standing eighty before and had also let us play through it as if we were there. My reaction to this wasn’t resentment (“I can’t believe we wasted an hour doing nothing.”) It was deep admiration. Why?

Because waking up from that encounter was actually a visceral shock to my system. I had thought, when we were fighting the vision of a long ago massacre, that we were operating in the realm of this game’s “reality” because every time I’d shot an arrow before it had struck something real and if I hit that thing enough times it had really died. That characters in this game – that my character, my archer – could dream and see some other kind of reality and process shock and pain and utter dread through that filter was new to me. It’s the moment I realized that, as a player, I wasn’t just here to shoot my longbow, was I?

But my first thought after James’s twist wasn’t to congratulate James on his storytelling acumen or ponder the nature of the game as it relates to life like I am doing here. No, upon waking, what I did was this: I hastily commanded (I might have even shouted) that my character run to where we had seen the ghost children earlier, and where in our dream, we had seen them brutally slain: in their beds. I ordered my character to lift the covers from their beds. “You see the embalmed remains of the elf children,” James said calmly.

I didn’t say out loud that my archer felt pain in that moment. He just did, because I did. I imagined him crouched at that bedside frozen in horror not just at the sight of the child but at the roller-coaster that had taken him in a few short minutes from seeing a ghost child to seeing that child slain to finding, in a moment of rage and confusion, an ancient corpse. It wasn’t a move action so much as an immersed state of being.

So mad props to James. It all served as a reminder that I am not the only person I know who has the ability to imagine, and to convey that process of imagination to others in a way that transports. Not by a long shot. It can be a tough pill to swallow – I am more prone to whimsy than James is, but I haven’t staked this world’s only claim on imagination; I write with the hope that it will support me one day as a way of making a living, and I do write more, but none of that means I write better.

So here’s my point: if you’re new to D&D or something like it, something that you had thought you would never enjoy, but do with all your heart, then own that! Own that admiration and spread it. Your friends may shake their heads and laugh a little when you tell them that all you have planned for tomorrow is a marathon session of D&D (happened just a few minutes ago to me), and that may cause your face to turn red but realize this: if playing that game makes you feel valued, or inspired, or just plain and simple happy… then play it, relish it, and forget what other people think.

And if you don’t play D&D, and you’re reading this (which, I mean, I highly doubt you’ve made it this far, but if I’ve still got you, then so be it): I was you once and I get it. James tried to explain it all to me, and I gave him the same look I’m getting from people now. Probably worse.

I thought wasting your day away pretending to be someone else, whether you did that by rolling dice or clicking a mouse, would have to be just the living worst. And I was wrong. Sincerely. And I don’t expect you to start playing tomorrow because I said that, because learning the ropes takes a lot of time and there are a lot of intangibles involved that could keep you from having a good time, so if it’s not something worth investing in for you, then I understand so very much.

But know this: when all the pieces fall just right, and you let down your guard down a little, and the company you’re with is quality, and your DM is a top-notch story-teller who knows how to take care of his players needs, then man oh man! The experience can transport you, uplift you and – hell I’ll say it – change you.

As some who loves film and television for those same reasons, I can hardly stand at the gate and tell Dungeons & Dragons it can’t come in and earn my full respect. There are other things out there more deserving of our scoffs and derision. Let’s go look down on them instead.

The Love Connection–Friends With Benefits

Happy belated Valentines Day, pop culture lovers!

Considering how many of you out there are anguished at/enamored with the idea of love, especially now judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I figured what better time to jump in and comment on how romance is dealt with in pop-culture.

There’s not a lot of middle ground. We all know the story, the myth, of true love, of eternal love, of SOULMATES, and its hard to justify a middle-ground stance on it. It’s for you or it’s not you at all.

The romantic comedies, the romance dramas, the musicals and the period pieces I want to talk about in this “Love Connection” space all end up have having to explore that uneven, hazy in-between space – caught between the cynics and the dreamers – quite a bit. They have to. Those films have two, three hours max, to burrow around in our psyches, asking us how we feel about true love and destiny. They do this explicitly or they’re a little more coy about it, but unless their audience has lived in a cave, it must be addressed. When they’re done, they fade right into the fabric that makes up the myth just like everything else. They become a part of the myth.

As much as we hate to admit it, these stories do inform the way we think about these things – often a lot. We all believe in the myth or we don’t, but we know it. We know that myth. Today, movies are the myth factory. They’re the dream factory.

Even the most dyed-in-the-wool, sincere, true-lovey-dovey movies have to acknowledge that skepticism about love comes with the reality that exists just in front of that movie screen – it’s hard to buy the Hollywood myth hook-line-and-sinker when real life refuses to conform to the dreamscape, so a film has to earn outright sentiment. Think of “The Princess Bride,” which tempers its completely sincere story of star-crossed lovers finding each other over and over again with a little boy listening along who initially can’t stand all that kissy mush. The movie buys our trust in its ethos as it earns the trust of that little boy, who plays the audience within the film; by the last scene, that little boy is following along rapturously, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, so are we.

It works the other way too. Many of the most skeptical, true-love snarking movies end up acknowledging, in the end, that there is that spark out there and you’ve just got to find it. How else can they ride off into that bright sunset, after all? And so a movie like “Enchanted,” which delights in making mice-meat of fairy-tale ideals, still sends off its main characters in a giddy, everyone’s-happy, trueloveathon. It lets us know it doesn’t believe in ALL that jazz… but some of it, yeah.

Both of those movies rather explicitly use the familiar trope of the fairy tale to ground and subvert viewers expectations. If making a romance movie is a game where you are trying to score an emotional victory over an audience who’s seen it all, and either doesn’t believe it or really believes it and might find your portrayal of it trite or insincere, then self-reflexivity is the tool needed to win the game. It is the gameplan. It is the ball.

Everyone comes into a romantic story with expectations, and it is the job of the storyteller to acknowledge those expectations. The storyteller can do that explicitly (I know you might not believe this, but…); they can break some taboos or rules and leave others sacred which keeps us guessing and invested; they can meet all those expectations by-the-book in a spectacular fashion that overrides inherent cynicism; or they can approach those expectations implicitly, embedded within the story, by having the characters in the story reference those expectations.

This past year, as I watched movie after movie, I became enraptured by how many movies use this implicit method, and, across genres and tones, how many of them leverage it similarly.

Of course, pop culture has been doing this for ages, so this is nothing new. The last popular love story “we” saw helped set the expectations “we” have for this new love story. That’s the way it works. If that new story hopes to take off and not simply fade into the tapestry, it needs to play with the last bright, shining star in the story constellation, whether that star happens to be an oft-recited poem or an inescapable fairy tale.

We all know where we find our brightest stars now – it’s not sonnets. Movies, after a solid century of myth-making, have something else to fall back on now. To show how skeptical they are about love, or how enamored they are by the idea of love eternal, a movie no longer has to roll its eyes or swoon at Shakespeare sonnets or chaste Victorian novels. Because now movies have… movies – lots of them, good ones and bad ones, treacly ones and jaded ones. And there’s nothing movies like more then talking about movies.

Which is how we get to 2011, where Mila Kunis, playing an unlucky-in-love head-hunter who has to “stop buying into this bullshit Hollywood cliché of true love,” as she puts it, can turn to a series of posters on a New York city sidewalk and huff dismissively, “Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you stupid, little liar!”

Look, as much as you, dear reader, are probably torn between thinking the idea of true love is stupid or naïve, while still hoping against hope that it might be out there for you somewhere… the blues you’ve got is NOTHING compared to the whiplash “Friends With Benefits” has.

This is essentially how “Friends With Benefits” feels about the idea of true love: “Love… UGHHHHH! (But really, it’s kind of okay.)”

And this is how “Friends With Benefits” feels about movies about love (in spite of being a movie about love): “God they’re dumb! They just don’t get real life AT ALL, and they’re so inauthentic… UGHHH! (But really, they’re kind of nice.)”

The most reach-out-and-grab-you instance of this ethos is Mila Kunis’s aforementioned dressing-down of a Katherine Heigl movie poster. (The poster is for the mutant aberration ”The Ugly Truth,” so really Kunis has every right. Still.) Here Kunis practically assures the world that – while real-world actress Heigl has misled all those lovers and dreamers out there with her bad movies – in this role, she will lead us right. Her trajectory in this movie will be true to “how it really is,” out here in the real world.

And so Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake live the anti-lovers dream – they hook up whenever they want, no love required, if there even is such a thing as “love.” The implication here is that Katherine Heigl would never do this, because this is risqué and authentic. This is how real people live and love.

The film builds on this dichotomy by installing within its narrative a fake romantic comedy – a film within the film – starring cutie-pie’s (and good sports) Jason Segal and Rashida Jones. This is the kind of film that Kunis’s character, Jamie, watches virtually every night – the fairy tale that sends her off into slumber – and that gets railed against during her Heigl rant because it has given her ideals that have messed up her love life beyond belief.

So who’s fault is it Jamie is a mess? The movies’! This movie in particular. Its crimes against humanity:

  1. The characters speak and act in big gestures no real human would ever use. (Jamie and Dylan are both commitment-phobes who would never make a big gesture; that is until Dylan realizes that a big gesture is the only way to salvage what they have!)
  2. The film’s music is horrible. It uses that stupid Train song we’ve all heard a million times! (“Friends With Benefits” has a much hipper soundtrack, until it trots out every clichéd and meaningful song it can think of in the last ten minutes – including the same Train song! This is meant to be a commentary on how sometimes the movies do get it right, but “Friends With Benefits” undercuts that sweetness at the last possible minute.)
  3. The film is “set” in New York, but is clearly being filmed on a poorly constructed set in Los Angeles. The film doesn’t even try to hide the palm trees! (In this way, “Friends” makes a point of shouting to the rooftops how cool it is that it is actually, really for real, shot in New York City. It’s the films most, nerdy, meta, and unnecessary touch. Aside from the father having dementia, which really adds an odd, sour note to the proceedings. And the flash-mob subplot which is such a small not in the beginning that you almost feel like you missed something when it comes back around in such a big way. And Woody Harrelson. What’s he doing here? Actually this film goes down a lot of weird roads… Hmm… Tangent done.)

This film-within-the-film is the kind of schlock that Timberlake’s character Dylan laughs derisively at while Jamie watches enraptured, because that’s what dudes do. And because “Friends With Benefits” needs this meta-commentary – it thinks it makes it special.

“Friends With Benefits” seems to realize that if it doesn’t make fun of romantic comedies, then guys in the audience will treat “Friends With Benefits” with the same derision and cynicism we see Timberlake fling at the film-within-a-film. A bit of Heigl-hating creates a safety-net by suggesting that “Friends With Benefits” isn’t one of THOSE films. Rather then using self-reflexivity to do something new – which would have really made “Friends With Benefits” stand out from its lesser twin “No Strings Attached” – it seems that “Friends With Benefits” is content to only wear its self-reflexivity as a light armor that can repel accusations that it’s too soft, too romantic…. too Heigl. It’s a waste of a solid sensibility that romantic comedies could do so much more, because that thread in the film is only there to make the audience feel more comfortable.

Today, a certain degree of detached self-reflexivity is an almost necessary aspect of selling generic but slightly off-kilter romantic comedies to a broader audience… namely men. It helps to assure men that they are not watching a “chick flick” if the girl is hot and the guy pretty much leers off the screen saying “Chick flicks, am I right?” With that distance established, it becomes okay for the guys to laugh along, and eventually maybe even become invested in the story.

It’s all an effective way of making fun of your cake and eating it too. You have to make fun of movies where characters fall for each other, because that’s dumb and the audience thinks it’s dumb. But this is still a movie where characters fall for each other in the end – we’re not dealing with anything as complex as “Annie Hall” here! And so, when Dylan mournfully watches Jamie’s silly romantic comedy – and we can tell he’s truly invested in it now because of the experience he’s just been through and the escape the film provides – to try and remember the good times after a tough break-up; when Kunis and Timberlake reconcile as the flash-mob as “big gesture” frolics in the background; and when Jamie and Dylan have there first “real” date with Train noodling on the soundtrack,  “Friends With Benefits” eats a huge slice of its own cake.

In a way, Friends With Benefits sells out, doesn’t it? This is a movie that desperately wants to be cooler then thou, so every time it gives in to one of those stupid romantic comedy trappings it’s been making fun of, it does it with a wink or a sneer, as if to say “Nah, I’m cool!”

But… is it really? Every jab at romantic comedies leads you to believe that “Friends” believes it is a more “authentic” romantic comedy – as funny because it’s willing to rag on romantic comedy conventions and comment on its own cred as it is for having funny, likeable characters. The film definitely wants you to believe it’s much less compromised than a Katherine Heigl movie. But it’s not actually. It only talks a big game. Think about it – is “Friends With Benefits” actually subverting anything, or, when it winks and sneers, is it just commenting on its own stupidity… and the stupidity it perceives in its audience.

“Friends With Benefits” employs an interesting, if not exactly original, strategy to up its romantic comedy cred and try and get past its audience’s expectations of what a romantic comedy should be. It’s philosophy: If everything really has been done already, then we should say it, and say it loud – “Everything’s been freakin’ done already!” We should laugh at that. And then we should do it all again, because, heck, it’s not worth it to try anything new.

In this strategy, saying it out loud – admitting that movies can be mushy and sentimental and sometimes stupid when it comes to love – acts as a safe-guard when your movie gets all mushy, sentimental and sometimes stupid. ”Friends With Benefits” gives in to every impulse it rails against and it hopes we’ll take that as clever character growth and plot development – and in a way it is. Jamie and Dylan recognize that the movie-ideal isn’t so bad after all – movies sell us the idea that there can be something more out there for us than simply being friends “with benefits,” and if the way Jamie and Dylan feel when they walk out of Grand Central and sit down down for a real date, then golly maybe movies are right. In the end, maybe “Friends With Benefits” is trying to sell us on the same idea that romance stories have been trying to sell us for ages – soulmates! And yeah, that’s sappy and silly, but it’s also free from irony and warm and cute. It is, in truth, more authentic than anything else.

And then Jamie and Dylan realize they have absolutely nothing to say to each other, as a “couple” on a “date,” that they didn’t say to each other as hook-up friends. Dates, how stupid, right? As Jamie and Dylan hop up on the table and begin ferociously making out again, the film gets a good laugh, but it also puts its walls back up again – it takes a moment that could be read as authentic and affirming and then takes one final moment to step all over it, to wink and sneer on last time at the cynics in the audience. “You didn’t think we’d sell out, did you? We’re COOL!”

And the film lover, the romance lover, in the audience – well he or she can’t help but throw in the towel and sigh, “Make up your mind, movie! Make up your damn mind.”

Todayimdiscovering’s Final Oscar Predictions

Artist

I think I accorded myself pretty well last time I came out and boldly predicted this year’s Oscar nominations. It’s part science, part luck, and I’m an amateur at all of this – an aspiring film buff who’s learning to love the game (and love-hate how simultaneously bafflingly old-school and surprisingly cool [rarely] the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can be).

Considering that, I made some kind of outta-left-field choices that paid off. Rooney Mara in! Gary Oldman too. And Nick Nolte. That said, there was something to surprise tucked away in every category I predicted.

I could not have foreseen Michael Fassbender, this year’s “it guy not named Gosling” getting left off in favor of little-seen-but-much-appreciated (and not seen by me) Demian Bechir from “A Better Life.” And I thought Rooney Mara would knock Glenn Close out of the race – instead she took out Tilda Swinton.

I had heard that Shailene Woodley of “The Descendents” (perhaps known to you from her lead role in “The Secret Life of the American Teen,” a fascinatingly terrible ABC family show and a really poor indicator of how good Woodley is in this film) might be in danger of losing a spot in the best Supporting Actress race. I chose to ignore those predictions, but, sadly enough, it came to pass. I was pulling for a Woodley win, but now I’ll just have to drag people to see this movie with me to show people how wrong the Academy voters were in this instance.

Most of the harrumphs on nomination day surrounded Albert Brooks not being nominated for “Drive.” He was elbowed out by Max van Sydow, who, if you’ll recall, I had hoped would maybe get left behind. He wasn;t, and instead of taking out Nick Nolte, he took out Brooks, who was a favorite to potentially take the award.

And then there was the Best Picture race. If you called nine Best Picture nominees, you are genius or a psychic. No one could have anticipated that, a year after the Academy tried to move away from a bloated 10 picture field, the voters would still split their votes so evenly amongst a group of pictures it’s hard to believe so many people would place first on their ballot.

If I had predicted a nine picture field, my seventh through ninth picks would have been “War Horse,” “Midnight in Paris” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” The latter didn’t make the cut. My tenth would have been “Bridesmaids” – also a swing and a miss. I’m not even sure I would have ever anticipated actual ninth nominee “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” making the cut. (And the Academy knows it, which is why there was an audible pause before they announced it and why there were only eight slots on the screen. Sneaky Academy.)

So, in every field I missed one nomination. That’s fine. That’s a batting average I’ll take. Shall I try my hand at the winners?

Best Picture – The Artist

My heart tells my The Artist backlash will win and The Descendants will traipse away with a victory. And I like The Artist. I saw it this past week and thought it was clever and moving and a deserving winner. But I liked The Descendants more and I truly believe there is a chance that film could play spoiler here. But it won’t. Backlash be damned, The Artist takes the win and tap dances off the stage with a smile.

Best Director – Michel Hazanvicius

Think the Academy will use the slot to award another deserving film, since The Artist is going to run away with the big prize? I don’t I wish it would. I’d like to see Alexander Payne take this one. Scorcese has a shot. Woody Allen and Terrence Malick have no real chance.

Best Actor – George Clooney

Jean Dujardin has largely monopolized this awards season with his charming grin and his French accent and his adorable humility. I think it ends at the Oscars. Clooney or Pitt. That’s what it comes down to. Dujardin is in it, but he’s not in it win it if you ask me. This is where “The Descendants” will get the love it deserves.

Best Actress – Viola Davis

I feel a silent but strong Streep backlash rumbling under my feet, and I think it lasts long enough to give this race to Davis. Neither movie blows you away, both performances are great, and Davis and Streep have split many of the awards up to this point. In this horse race, “The Help” being a stronger movie and Davis being a newer presence helps her win.

Best Supporting Actor – Christopher Plummer

By far the easiest call. With Brooks gone, and apparently never a true threat, there is no one to stop Plummer from taking his first Oscar at 82 for his charming performance in my favorite movie of the year, “The Beginners.” If anyone could wrest it from Captain Von Trapp’s grasp, I’d say it could be Jonah I-can’t–believe-he’s-an-Oscar-nominee-but-just-go-with-it Hill (Nolte, Von Sydow and Brannagh should probably stay home). But that won’t happen.

Best Supporting Actress – Octavia Spencer

All signs point to Spencer joining her “Help” costar Davis at the podium to accept this award and make her thank-yous. As I said, Woodley would have been my upset pick. Now its Berenice Bejo has daffily winning in “The Artist.” Winning enough to actually win? No. Melissa McCarthey in “Bridesmaids” is a classic “Be happy you’re nominated!” role. As long as everyone considers Jessica Chastain for just the role she’s nominated for – her role as a trashy but good-hearted housewife in “The Help” – and not for the whole of her work in 2011, which they could do I suppose, Spencer will be the “Help” cast member who walks away from the ceremony with a statue in hand.

Best Animated Feature – Rango

Rango was a strange film. It suffered from “Happy Feet” syndrome, veering wildly into an environmental message two-thirds of the way through a film that had largely been concerned with genre parody. That said, it was the best animated feature by miles, and with “The Adventures of Tin Tin” sitting this one out because of a presumed Academy bias against motion capture, there is nothing standing in the way from a “Rango” victory.

Foreign Language Film – A Separation

If critics are any indication (and the Documentary category should be a sign that in fact they’re not that great an indicator), the Iranian film “A Separation” has already won this award and will win it for many years to come. It is far and away the biggest deal of any of the nominees stateside and it is a huge presumptive favorite.

Best Adapted Screenplay – Moneyball

Aaron Sorkin dialogue and the uncanny ability to make nerdy things (computer programming, baseball stats) thrilling. That beats “The Descendants” here.

Best Original Screenplay – Bridesmaids

What helps “Bridesmaids” here? It is a film that demands to be recognized, and this is the easiest place to do it. The competition is pretty light here. “The Artist” is unlikely to win because it’s silent. (Not saying that’s fair.) “Midnight in Paris” is a solid contender but lacks the “Bridesmaids” buzz. “A Separation” was a surprise nomination because foreign-language scripts have a harder journey to the ballot.

The Love Connection

When I began toying with a new running series about proverbial “chick-flicks” and “chick-lit” and the like, I debated calling the feature something coy and distancing like “Girl Talk.”

I wanted to talk about the pop culture my female friends were telling me about or making me watch, truly I did. But, by calling it “Girl Talk” and talking about how I’d been “swindled” into it all unsuspectingly by girls – whether I’d in fact enjoyed it or not – I was allowing myself to maintain a safe distance without compromising my male gaze. Which is such a guy thing to do…

“This is the girl stuff that girls have gotten me into. It’s kind of cool, but I’d like it more if I was girl. Girls…”

And maybe I would have liked some of those films more if I were female. I might have also liked some less. The point is, increasingly, as 2011 came to an end and I was the one seeking out primetime soaps and romantic comedies and dragging other people along for the company, it didn’t seem like that was the point. At least that wasn’t the point I cared about anymore.

I mean, yes, Downton Abbey is a costume drama where the tension comes from longing glances and not, like, gun battles. Yes Revenge is a soap opera, and those things got started to sell soap to housewives. I’m not a housewife. And yes, Bridesmaids is a romantic comedy. I get that guys don’t normally go for all that, or at least Hollywood tells us we don’t. But, in truth, lots of guys do watch Downton Abbey and its ilk. And they should, because there is some fascinating, profound work going on in these spins on love stories. And I love it. Downton Abbey is unequivocally, without qualifications, my favorite series since Lost.

2010 is the year I embraced that I am a total nerd. I let my bubbling interest in comics and science fiction – mostly garnered from my interest in Lost – solidify into something more real, and when you embrace something like that, you become, in my opinion, a happier pop culture consumer. And a much better critic. If 2010 was the year I stopped worrying and learned to love the graphic novel, then 2011 was the year I realized that fans of Daredevil comics and fans of British soap operas can indeed be the same people. They do not need to be mutually exclusive.

But it took a while to come to that realization. And a lot of great films and books that broke down my walls and are still breaking them down today. If you’d told me at the beginning of last year that my two favorite shows would both be soaps, I would have kicked you. And if you’d told me my two favorite films of 2011 would be defiant examples of how alive and creative the romance genre still is, I would have pointed to the posters for “Thor” and “Captain America” and said, “These will be my two favorite movies of 2011. Go away.”

Here we are in 2012 and I can admit that Downton Abbey, Revenge, Weekend and Beginners thrilled me in 2011. They turned my world upside-down. How did they do that? Why do I find them fascinating? Why does anyone, girl or guy, find them fascinating? Why, in the end, are love stories so damn fascinating? Most of all, why do love stories find themselves so fascinating?

Self-reflexivity has become increasingly prevalent in the romance genre these days. It seems that, in 2011 and 2012, there is nothing a love story loves to do more than comment on how other love stories are told.

That guys don’t normally watch things targeted at chicks simply stopped being interesting to me somewhere along the line, probably about halfway through Blue Valentine, when I realized that the way the films I was watching were playing with the form of the love story as we think we know it  was blowing my mind. That film basically destroyed any preconceived notions I had about how this boys club-girls club thing should work. And so now I’m trying to rebuild the castle the best way I know how. A long-form exploration.

What’s going on with love stories these days? Why are they so self-reflexive? Is ironic distance hurting them or helping them? What makes us connect so deeply with them? Watching one movie, reading one book can’t answer these questions. Not in a way that’s going to satisfy me.

So I’ll watch all of them! (Okay, not all of them.) And, gosh darnit, I’ll love them! This isn’t something my female friends are dragging me into, something I can dismiss as idle “Girl Talk.” No, this is a bigger question than that, something that concerns guys as much as it concerns girls. This is “The Love Connection!”

My Oscar Nomination Predictions, Because Why the Heck Not

Last night, I correctly predicted the entrants to the Super Bowl with a remarkable amount of confidence and self-assurance. “Patriots, Giants,” I said without hesitation and, lo and behold, I wasn’t just right. I was Super Right!

So I now think I’m some sort of seer. Here, without any more hemming and hawing, are my predictions for this year’s Oscar nominations! Hopefully, tomorrow morning we’ll see that I’ve gotten every single one right and you can praise me for my genius. If I don’t get every one, then I’ve failed you… and I’m sorry.

Best Picture

The Artist

The Descendants

Hugo

The Help

Moneyball

The Tree of Life

(The Oscars could nominate anywhere from five to ten movies. I’m going with six movies here. Most people are giving the fifth slot, for that well-liked crowd-pleaser, to Midnight in Paris, but my gut tells me that Moneyball slips in and Midnight just misses the cut. As for The Tree of Life – it could never garner enough support to come close to a win since so many people will leave it off their ballot completely. But what matters here is that people put your movie first, and if someone is putting Tree of Life on their ballot, it’s going to be listed first. For this reason, I think Terrence Malick’s film slips in to a sixth slot.)

Best Actor

George Clooney, The Descendants

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Michael Fassbender, Shame

Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

(Please, please, please leave Leo out of this and give Gary Oldman his first Oscar nomination for a wonderful performance in a movie that it does not hurt to watch. And please give Michael Fassbender his due for ending a banner year with a striking performance in a movie it is hard to watch.)

Best Actress

Viola Davis, The Help

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin

Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

(Glenn Close is supposed to make the cut here for a movie you still haven’t seen and probably won’t see for a long time, Albert Nobbs. I just don’t think it happens. I think that Mara has garnered enough momentum to push past a performance many Academy voters may not have even seen in a movie many others may not have liked.)

Best Supporting Actor

Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Albert Brooks, Drive

Nick Nolte, Warrior

Jonah Hill, Moneyball

Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn

(The question is whether Max Van Sydow makes the cut for a movie no one passionately liked and many fervently disliked, Extremely Loud or Incredibly Close. Nick Nolte probably passes him.)

Best Supporting Actress

Octavia Spencer, The Help

Berenice Bejo, The Artist

Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

Jessica Chastain, The Help

Best Director

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Martin Scorcese, Hugo

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Alexander Payne, The Descendants

David Fincher, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Today in Pop Culture (AKA What’s POP-pin’?)–Alabama Defeats Redundancy

I’m an SEC kid. Florida grad. I love me some SEC. S-E-C! S-E-C!

That being said, watching the SEC win its sixth straight championship against… itself… last night was as insufferable as watching something you are truly  happy about can possibly be. Like watching your college graduation, but scored by The Wiggles.

There is a difference between appreciating something and actually having to sit through it. I appreciate Moby Dick as a great work. I am not, however, going to read it when I go to the beach this weekend. The last Alabama-LSU game – the *ahem* “Game of the Century – which LSU won on an overtime field goal, was undoubtedly dull in exactly this way, but at least it was close and hard-fought at both ends. (That said, it was one of the most painful sports-watching experiences ever.) The Alabama-LSU national championship we saw last night managed to be both as dull as their last meeting and completely one-sided.

People complain about how watching Tim Tebow, when it is not “Tebow Time,” is painful. Which it is. We watch Tebow for the occasional thrill. For the fourth quarter. For overtime. We slog through the rest. Watching LSU, previously undefeated and invincible, struggle to gain 92 yards (92 TOTAL YARDS!) from scrimmage last night was like watching a team full of Tebows for four quarters. And Tebow Time never came. It was all slog no reward. The only real way to enjoy last night’s game was to encase yourself in houndstooth and shout “Roll Tide!” Even then, at a certain point I feel you had to look at the poor LSU offense and plead “Stop. Even this is too much. It hurts.”

You know who really didn’t enjoy last night’s game – the biggest Tebow of them all, LSU quarterback and sad-sack of the week Jordan Jefferson. This Alabama defense is legendary, but can anyone not pin some of the blame for last night’s astounding shut-out on this sullen-looking young man who got his head so spun around by the Tide that it seemed the only place he could throw the ball was to his right and left side! (Pretty much his only forward pass was the most ill-advised shovel pass I have ever seen.)

Alabama deserves all the credit it is due after the first bowl game shut-out in the BCS era (sorry Oklahoma State, try again next year?) but they surely did not deserve the rapt attention of the people I watched the game with. Remember when the baseball season ended and fans were rewarded with the most thrilling evening of sports anyone can ever remember? Or when the St. Louis Cardinals treated us all to heart-stopping moment after heart-stopping moment? Yeah that didn’t happen here. I firmly believe football, particularly college football, has stolen the mantle of America’s game from baseball. And the SEC is the purest, most rowdy, most amazing evocation of that. But it was telling that – on a night when we should have been celebrating the astounding heights the Southeastern Conference has reached – a room full of people (and SEC graduates no less) watching another southern powerhouse anoint itself king of the roost kept grumbling, “Man, I wish I was watching Oregon right now…”

We’re only human, sports gods! Throw us a bone?

Today in Pop Culture (AKA What’s Pop-in’?!?)–Downton Abbey Returns

Downton

Downton Abbey has reached American shores for a second time now (in doing so, it’s done better than the Titanic, which started that whole entail mess at Downton after all), and the cultural cognoscenti are swooning as one. Someone had better break out the smelling salts.

The most frustrating thing about everyone’s favorite British import (sorry Doctor Who) airing legally in the United States months after it has wrapped in the U.K. is not, in fact the wait. (No, as we’ve learned from this show, it is the wait that comes from stolen glances and breathy non-conversations that makes a costume drama all the better.) In fact, the most frustrating aspect of it all is that the British have already poo-pooed Series 2 of Downton Abbey as not up to the first series admittedly high standards.

Well, the British can be O’Brien’s all they want, it won’t stop me from thrilling at every twist and turn over these next seven Sunday’s on PBS. Last night’s two hour (two-hour!) premiere was must-see television (especially if you’d spent all weekend marathoning the first seven episode’s… I have no self-control) that soared and devastated in equal measure. In every plot line, from Anna and Bates’s saintly romance to Lady Edith’s horrid spinsterdom, we saw the highest highs (Lady Edith would be a great writer!) and the lowest lows (Oh, Lady Edith, don’t do that!)

The show admittedly drags a bit on the Western front, since we all really care what’s going on at Downton, the horrors of war be damned, (and the effects budget doesn’t really suit trench warfare) but gosh darnit if this show doesn’t find it’s footing quickly even after skipping two years in story. By the time Lady Mary is wishing her not-fiancée Matthew well on the front, you’ll be crying and, believe me, invested like nobody’s business.

I basically couldn’t recommend something more than I could now recommend this darling concoction. You can find Season 1 streaming on Netflix instant and last night’s episode on pbs.org. Join me in thrilling to every withering quip from the mighty Dowager Countess. I mean, it’s Dame Maggie Smith… In a big hat… You know you want to…

The Sheer Awesomeness of Tim Tebow

Tebow1

One of my favorite hobbies lately has been trolling the Internet for the seemingly ceaseless stream of Tim Tebow scholarly criticism that has been pouring in from every corner of a usually-fragmented blogosphere.

There is nothing more fun at this point then watching smart people – both religious and not, both sports-loving and not, both left and right – try to rationalize this Tebow quandary and, in the end, simply throw up their arms and shrug.

I love watching this utter bewilderment, and heck, I love being a little bewildered myself, so I get a little sad when, each week, at that moment when it appears that there is no way Tebow can pull it out this time, it becomes clear that a Tebow loss threatens to wash away the rising tide of Tebow fanaticism in a great, big “I told you so” from the skeptics.

You feel it in every fourth quarter — that sense that, not only is this the fourth quarter where Tebow will finally lose but also the fourth quarter where Tebow will lose his luster, lose his momentum as a national issue, lose his place as the most entertainingly and harmlessly polarizing figure we might ever see. Because as soon as he fails to come back in spectacular fashion, everyone can just switch back to the default and dismiss this all as something less than magical, or worst, as “just sports.” As soon as “normal people” can dismiss Tebow as “just sports,” we risk losing what has become one of the most fascinating, frustrating, wonderful cultural debates we have going – one that has low enough stakes to not hurt anybody but still captivates just about everybody – to the great American wasteland of a fragmented Internet culture where it’s hard to get everyone on the same page for more then two minutes.

“Hey do you watch Community?” I say.

“No not really, it doesn’t interest me.” Conversation over. “Have you seen Breaking Dawn?” you say.

“No. It’s not that I have a problem with it, but I really don’t have much to say about that.”

“Oh… Tebow?”

“Yes! Tebow!”

“Oh my god I hate his overt religiosity. It’s insufferable.”

“How could you? It’s the mark of a talented and humble man!”

“Talented?!? Puh-leeze…”

And forty beautiful minutes of something, anything, connection… ensue. And with every fourth quarter we risk losing that. That common ground. But then we don’t.

Why? Because Tim Tebow refuses to lose. Well, he lost to Detroit, but, as the latest meme to blow up my Facebook feed explains, “He once lost to Detroit, just to see what it felt like. He is… the most entertaining QB in the NFL.”

And with an incredible comeback win over the Chicago Bears (and I mean incredible in it’s most literal interpretation – what I saw on my television stretched credibility) we now get treated to another round of Tebow talk, and with each week the stakes get higher. From every corner of the Internet – from Grantland and Time, NPR and FoxNews – Tebow articles will resprout anew as if watered and placed in direct sunlight. They’ll be largely the same as last week’s, but there will be new wrinkles added because A) this was a bigger comeback than most B) the Broncos are legitimate contenders to potentially take it all and C) the various articles are beginning to comment on and quote each other, as various lonely corners of the Internet unite in a giant web that brings groups that rarely interact together on one topic.

I find the myriad Tebow think-pieces fascinating. (My favorite so far, by Chuck Klosterman, can be found here.) They are interesting, issue-based and understanding of the narrative nature of a game, and a figure, that appeals to both middle America and the Occupy movement in equal measure.

Tebow is young, handsome and overtly Christian. He is a consummate scrappy underdog and an entitled so-and-so who has no right to claim the stake on the grand American stage that he currently has. He is a great, underrated athlete who says something about American can-do spirit and he’s… well, he’s just a dumb jock. Tebow is a walking contradiction, but only to us. What makes Tebow so great is that, in his mind, Tebow isn’t a contradiction at all – he’s a normal god-fearing gent with a mean stiff-arm and he doesn’t pretend to be much more then that. We, his public, get to put on his blank, handsome face our own baggage – be it sports-affiliated, religious or other – and he just affirms that hullaballoo in some way by consistently winning and winning and winning – and doing it without grandstanding in a way that would give “victory” to the doubters.

Tebow2

I would probably be a doubter if not for one simple fact – I am a University of Florida alum. Onto the great load-bearing platform of Tebow symbolism, I get to put my own baggage and sort out where I can possibly stand on a man who affirms so much of what I believe in while shattering so much of what I don’t. I am an atheist, but a Florida Gator through-and-through, and so I can’t, in principle believe there is something all that special about Tebow – nothing truly divine or supernatural – while knowing, in my heart, that I do believe there is in fact something that special about Tebow. Maybe not the same something Tebow thinks there is, but something. When Tebow wins, he looks to the sky and points. When Tebow wins, I look in his eyes and see something that’s missing from my own eyes and from just about everyone else’s. It scares me and delights me in equal measure.

So what happens if Tebow wins the Super Bowl? Will America explode? Will I? In some ways I don’t even want to say it, to suggest this possibility. It’s too early, the contenders are too good, the Broncos still too shaky. We are still in the realm of the jinx, and goodness knows I don’t want to jinx Tebow at this point. If this is what Tebowmania looks like, I’d like it to last the NFL, the sports world and America a few more weeks if not a few more years.

But what am I thinking? I don’t believe in jinxes. Jinxes are just silly superstitions uber-sports fans speak of in hushed tones. Then again, I don’t believe in God either, and if there’s one thing that Tim Tebow has taught me, it’s to check your beliefs at the door and let things play out in ways we may not have previously thought possible.

The Sing-Off–Finale Recap

Pentatonix

Is it over already?

The hardest thing to believe as we end this marathon, Gigantor-sized season is that this show once took place over an incredibly brief two week period. Not just once, actually. It did it twice. And we were satisfied… Shocking.

This season was huge, but still felt just right. Did it ever feel bloated? Once or twice. But I loved having more Sing-Off in my life. Hell, I’m a greedy guy. No I’m not ready to send my favorite show away! Yes, I want a Christmas special!

In the end, has the grand experiment – to expand the Sing-Off and infect America with vocal band fever – been a resounding success? No. Extending the Sing-Off to a full season and doubling the competitors was not, ultimately, a ratings coup. Far from it. The show floundered outside of its holiday sweet-spot.

But in the beautiful world that only exists in my head where the only thing that matters is that I’m having fun… in that world, this was great! I think this show did a great job of cultivating and appealing to its fan-base. And if it didn’t, it did a great job of cultivating and appealing to me. More, it gave us (or just me) more content (and better groups) without it ever feeling like we were getting filler. No one likes filler. As a matter a fact it felt like, without Nicole blabbering, every moment on the show was important.

That all ended last night of course. The finale show is a bit of a stretch for any vote-based reality show. Since all the performances that actaully counted toward the vote tally are already fin,there is an implicit admission that none of this matters. “This is all pointless and ceremonial,” they stop just short of saying. “We know you just want to see us crown the winner, but first, here’s Nick Lechey singing!” (Okay, actually, that was a pretty good performance, but still, you see my point.)

So rather then focus on the pats-on-the-back and pointless victory laps last night, let’s look back on what has been a really good season of splendid vocal band competition.

Delilah: No one should forget what Delilah did this season – They turned what had been a previously shrill and untenable category in the competition (the all-female group) into a legitimately thrilling, dramatic, and fierce feather in this show’s cap. Recall that these ladies came out roaring with an innovative take on Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” and that every two weeks or so, they reminded us of that brilliance. They were this show’s original frontrunner, its first marketable mascot in Season 3, and its most aggressively pure act in some ways. I’m less enamored of their version of “Dream On” now that it’s been in my ear for a few weeks, but I still think that, even as they faced elimination, they put on a tremendous show with that song, Danielle absolutely shredding that vocal as they went out in a blaze of glory.

What was impressive about this group (aside from their amazing voices) was that they brought a uniquely marketable identity to the girl group formula. They were “girl power” without being condescending or cutesy about it. Their defining characteristic seemed to be a self-serious and aggressive on-stage presence that said “Yeah, the women are in charge on this stage.” (And awesome vocals. Seriously, the girl who sings bass! Whoa.) And yet they were never too aggressive. In video packages they were fun (okay, the two blondes were actually pretty annoying), during judging they became Sara’s little acolytes, her “girls,” but they kept enough of an edge (a perfectly manicured edge) that calling them “the girls” would always seem condescending.

No, they weren’t Sara’s “girls.” They were a legitimate threat, and they squandered their potential when they tried to be the cute girls, Sara’s girls, and go retro with performances like “Heat Wave.” Still, one of my lasting impressions of this season will be how impressed I was, and how taken the Sing-Off fan-base appeared to be, by this all-female acapella group.

North Shore: Delilah wasn’t the only group to benefit from a vanilla Bruno Mars track. The good thing about a Bruno Mars track: it takes on interpretation well. The classy guys in North Shore didn’t have to do much to make the “Lazy Song” work in their doo wop wheel-house, but when they put it on, boy, did that song transform. What sounded annoying and entitled coming from Mars sounded adorable coming from a guy who looked like your Uncle Frankie. North Shore managed to be more fun, more adorable, and less “this-is-a-history-lesson-so-listen-up” than past “legacy” groups and, heck, they started to seem like a legitimate contender. In retrospect, they should have stuck around longer.

A College Acapella Group Really Can’t Win This Thing: Not unless every other group is completely devoid of unique style and flair. This season made apparent that the “acapella fleet” thing, where you throw seventeen guys or guys and girls on the stage and hope for something to stick, is wonderfully entertaining much of the time but is not a formula for winning The Sing-Off. I think the main concern for a group like The Yellowjackets, Vocal Point or even the Dartmouth Aires (who I did a complete 360 on this season, I’ll admit) is that you can’t imagine them being major recording artists.

Why would they do it? I mean aside from the money. Can you imagine these 16 guys who used to be associated with a university, in perpetuity, keeping you entertained? Straight No Chaser did it, but they’re a novelty act, and this show has higher pretensions (probably unfounded, but whatever) than novelty.

Would you buy the album? Probably not. If you did it would be because of Michael’s amazing voice and the guys backing him up would be an afterthought. And that’s just the way it is with these big groups of doofy college guys. A Nota will always beat a Bubs, a Committed will always take out an On the Rocks. Why? Because it doesn’t bode well that the college groups are so closely associated with their universities. It makes it impossible to see these groups outside of BYU or Dartmouth. It hurts. But there was one group who managed to escape that collegiate notion and could have legitimately taken the title…

Afro Blue: Afro-Blue never just seemed like the group of goofy kids from Howard. This was a group small enough and unique enough that you could see them all going on to record something together, something you would buy. Unlike a larger group, they didn’t have one star and a bunch of random backup spots you could fill in with any other singing goofball. They were defined not by their loopy stage presence or tongue-in-cheek attitude; what defined them was a record-ready sophistication and a creative an innovative approach to popular music. I still think they deserved to finish second in this competition.

But what did them in? Well, with this group, what initially seemed “cool” began to feel cold. I think this is what the judges meant when they destroyed Afro Blue’s mojo by criticizing them for “overthinking.” Aside from an unwise decision to insert the National Anthem into “American Girl,” Afro Blue never overthought anything. They thought everything out to the same degree, but as the week’s went on, their restrained version of laid-back cool began to read as them lacking in fire or passion.

One Afro-Blue performance was pretty much any Afro-Blue performance, and that innate professionalism but inability to seem, how you say, delightfully off-the-rails or on-the-edge resulted in performances that were beautiful but, well, boring on television. (“We Belong Together,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Need You Now,” the “Fly” master-mix.)

Pentatonix: The five young singers in Pentatonix mastered what Afro Blue never could – they were eternally cool on the stage, but their sense of invention and particularly their use of movement in both arranging and choreography kept them delightfully off-kilter while Afro-Blue settled into some Manhattan Transfer twilight zone.

Pentatonix was never not the front-runner in this competition. From the moment they opened their mouths in Week 2 and made clear that they could totally take Delilah in a throwdown, this group never once let up on the gas even a little. They were a super-fast convertible that watches all the dinky little sedans get smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror until it’s almost a joke to say they’re all on the same road or that you could classify them both as “cars.”

To put this in perspective: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singing reality show so completely dominated from start to finish by just one group. Not on Idol, not on America’s Got Talent, not anywhere. Early talents usually flame out (Casey Abrams, Delilah, Melinda Doolittle) or fail to get quite as many votes as you thought they would (Adam Lambert, Susan Boyle). Also, if there are clear frontrunners, these shows usually have a head-to-head narrative. These shows only exist to garner ratings for the drama inherent in a situation like the one created when two juggernauts like Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken or the Davids (Cook and Archuleta) are evenly matched. Look at “The Voice.” Everyone tried to give “The Voice” some suspense by turning Dia Frampton into a legitimate contender for the crown even though she never really came close to holding a candle to Javier Colon.

But still, in spite of Javier’s dominance, that felt like a race because people wanted to make it a race. Any attempt to make this season of The Sing-Off seem like anything more than the acting out of a foregone conclusion – any attempt to add some suspenseful narrative – fell flat because Pentatonix was just that good. But not just that good… they were that perfect for the show, that beloved by the in-studio audience, and that incredibly photogenic on national television. Every time they were on the screen, they were more captivating than you ever imagined this show could be. Even better, five members meant only five distinct personalities to keep up with and in turn that meant only five people to fall in love with (as opposed to, say, seventeen).

Falling in love was easy for many people, and, even for something as niche and small-scale as The Sing-Off audience is, it’s impressive that such a resounding, deafening consensus could be found. To encounter a performance quite this dominating you have to go to sports. And not even college football this time. LSU is good, but LSU is not as far from Alabama, Oklahoma State or Boise State as Pentatonix was from its nearest competitors.

Pentatonix are the Packers. Trying to compare Pentatonix to Urban Method and the Aires is like looking at Baltimore and San Francisco and saying, “Yeah, they’re darn good football teams too… but if that’s what a darn good football team looks like, than the Packers are barely even a football team anymore. They’re not quite superhuman, but there’s basically no point of comparison. You need a new classification. A new subspecies.” That’s how awesome Pentatonix was. That’s how dominant these kids from Arlington, Texas proved to be.

Urban Method: And yet I would argue that Pentatonix was not the most compelling group on this season of the Sing-Off. A villain is always more compelling then the white-hatted hero, and, over the ten or so weeks this show was on the air, this group of most-definitely talented but also sort of bland studio professionals became a sign-post among the fan community for judge coddling and took on a dimension of “They’re still here, really?!?” that essentially reached hysterics by the time the finale rolled around and Urban Method found themselves as one of the final three groups.

Urban Method was clearly in NBC’s pimp-spot from the beginning, and the show never stopped touting them as some kind of acapella revolution, the inevitable merging of rap and acapella music that absolutely everyone in America had been jonesing for for decades. Except no one had been… And if anyone out there actually had been inclined to such a craving, Urban Method was not the group that was finally putting that baby to rest.

If anything, Urban Method was much better when they weren’t rapping, weren’t hip-hop posturing, weren’t trying to live up the show’s expectation of them as this new future of acapella music – the group had some genuinely sweet and funny moments on the show when they let loose and had a little fun on funk classics like “It’s My Thing” and “Dance to the Music,” and they displayed a sharp sense of humor on their legitimately entertaining, humorous cover of Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison.” Unfortunately, this more playful, less hip-hop centric image ran straight in the face of the show’s forced notion that Urban Method was revolutionizing music by introducing us all to some serious “rapapella” (ugh…), and so we kept being told to like sleepy performances of pop hits repeated exactly as they had been sung on the pop charts only months before. “Airplanes”? Snooze… “Love The Way You Lie”? Snore. I think the group did give one of their better performances on Kanye’s “All of the Lights,” but that’s such a phenomenal song with such great peaks and valleys that, truly, you’d have to be a dullard to mess that up.

Was Urban Method all bad? No. I like Mike as a rapper, though I’d take many of the show’s other soloists over him in a draft. The girls did start to show some charisma in the later weeks even if that charisma could only seemingly be expressed through pained banshee shrieks. And in later weeks, Urban Method’s Pentatonix imitation, where they put original spins on songs and took some real risks, actually began to look less like a strategy and more like an actual inkling towards creativity. It was refreshing.

The fan outcry that they got as far as they did was largely unfounded. I think, in the end, the group was about even with the non-Pentatonix playing field. They should’ve probably gone home in the seventh week when they were really struggling, but they were about even with those teams and it was nice to see the group come together and innovate a little.

But, to ask the other question on everyone’s minds, did we in fact see the rapapella revolution, the changing of the guard in music? One look at Urban Method trying (and failing miserably) to make “Stereo Hearts” (a song I actually like quite a bit) work on the Sing-Off stage should answer that question pretty resoundingly – gosh no. If anyone changed the guard, it’s the daredevil innovators in Pentatonix, but, truthfully, if you’re hoping for big mainstream success for that intrepid acapella troupe… don’t get your hopes up…

But it’s okay. We few, we stalwart Sing-Off faithful still have the Christmas special to fawn over! Let’s relish it while it lasts.