PopMatters: Best Television of 2011

I contributed three write-ups to PopMatters's list of the best television shows of the year.

The Best Television Shows of 2011

No. 33: Beavis and Butt-Head

You might guess that Beavis and Butt-Head, with their slacker attitudes and penchant for music-video-viewing, were wholly a product of their time. It turns out that the same dim-wittedness (and, in some cases, animation) work in any era. Sure, they’re now plopped in front of Jersey Shore and Teen Mom—shows that are basically their own self-satire, so you’d think there’d be nothing else to say about them. But writer/voice actor Mike Judge knows just what to say—something so profoundly stupid, it’s stupidly profound—to wring out the most laughs out of any situation, including The Situation.

No. 32: New Girl

New Girl begins with a very typical fish-out-of-water premise: When Jess (Zooey Deschanel) breaks up with her long-time boyfriend, she needs to find a new living situation and winds up taking a room in an apartment with three dudes. The charm comes from how goofy all four roommates are. Sometimes the boys rightfully tease Jess for her quirky social blind spots, and sometimes they’re just as clueless as she is. And it’s always a good time watching Deschanel indulge her ultimate inner dork.

No. 23: Up All Night

NBC has best comedies on television because the network broadcasts shows about people, not premises. Up All Night is proof: There are no wacky reasons these characters are together (sorry, 2 Broke Girls) and no contrivances keeping them there. Instead, the show—about a couple raising a newborn, simple as that—draws humor from its characters not through their circumstances, but by being who they are. And, with the comedic chops of Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph behind them, who they are is very funny indeed.

Click through to read the rest of the list at PopMatters.

DVD Review: Another Earth

'Another Earth' Applies More Thought, Less CGI

"Too often characters in movies reveal too much of themselves to each other, or describe exactly how they’re feeling to each other. Another Earth never falls into this trap. John doesn’t come out and discuss his dead wife and child with Rhoda, and Rhoda doesn’t talk about her time in prison. Those experiences weigh heavily on them, but go unremarked upon. They exist in the background, like Earth Two.

Other times, though, it feels as if Another Earth somewhat squanders its best idea. Once the concept of Earth Two is introduced, the mind races with questions: How similar is it to Earth One? Is there a second version of me on the planet? If yes, is that person identical to me, or are there differences? If there are differences, who has the better life? Another Earth raises all of these questions without really exploring them. Instead, it spends all of its time on Earth One, detailing a story about grief, loss, and guilt—a story that’s not as original or intriguing as the double-Earth conceit."

Click through to read the rest of the review at PopMatters.

PopMatters: Worst Films of 2011

I contributed two blurbs for PopMatters's list of the most terrible films that came out last year.

The Worst Films of 2011

No. 8: Abduction

True, spoilery fact: There is no abduction in Abduction. Sure, main character Nathan, played by Twilight’s second-fiddle Taylor Lautner, sees his own face on a missing-persons website. But it’s not because he was abducted as a child—and the real reason is almost too stupid to go into. (It was a trap so the bad guys could lure him out of his safe, secret-agent-led foster home?) What follows is a series of fights and chases led by the ultimately charisma-less Lautner, who doesn’t really sell his character ultra-trained CIA spawn, but is even less convincing as a normal teenager. What’s most confusing of all is how director John Singleton and actors like Maria Bello, Sigourney Weaver, and Alfred Molina got dragged down with him.

No. 3: Just Go with It

Let’s see what Adam Sandler had been doing surrounding Just Go with It. He played a rich guy with a hot wife in Grown Ups. He played a rich guy with a hot ex-wife in Funny People. Immediately following Just Go with It, he played a rich guy with a hot wife (and his awful twin sister) in Jack and Jill. Sandler’s most interesting comedies arise when he creates a character—either real people with real flaws that drive the action, like Billy Madison, or strange outlandish types like in Little Nicky. Now, he seems content with being the normal, rich dude who puts in the minimum amount of effort to woo whatever young actress is roped in to play his love interest. Just Go with It is the peak of this sort of Sandler laziness. He has to choose between the young paramour he’s been chasing (Brooklyn Decker) and his female best-friend-all-along (Jennifer Aniston). What’s unclear by the end of the movie is what, apart from his successful plastic surgery practice, either of them see in him.

Click through to read the rest of the list at PopMatters.

January Issue: Audra McDonald Q&A

Back to Broadway

Our first thought upon hearing the news: she’s back! She’s back! After a four-year absence—during which she was on TV’s Private Practice—Audra McDonald is finally returning to Broadway. The 41-year-old Croton-on-Hudson resident already has received raves for her portrayal as Bess in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess when the production opened at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge this summer. On January 12, it’ll open on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The Cambridge production featured more backstory than its original incarnation, which has raised a few (high-profile) eyebrows among theater folk. We asked McDonald about going from the small screen to the big stage, awards pressures, and the controversial decision to change the Gershwins’ original work.

You’ve been on Private Practice for the past four seasons. How is doing television different from being on the stage?
In stage performances, you have the opportunity to live through your character’s entire dramatic arc without significant interruption, and you have to calibrate your performance—and maintain your physical and emotional stamina—accordingly. You also feel the audience’s response to your performance—whether enthusiasm or indifference; it’s almost like a chemical chain reaction. Television requires a different set of muscles. Shooting an episode of a TV series can be physically exhausting, but you’re doing scenes in much smaller chunks, with many interruptions and breaks. You have to learn to jump right back into a specific dramatic moment even if you’ve been mentally going over your grocery list and reminding yourself to call the babysitter while the crew is setting up the next shot. I actually really like the variety, which is why I don’t limit myself to one particular genre.

Download the PDF above to read the rest of the article.

January Issue: People to Watch Feature Package

For this feature package, I highlighted eight local up-and-comers: April Bukofser & Marin Milio, Clare Galterio, Todd Sandler, Stan Rosenberg, Malcolm D. MacDougall III, Stephen Ferri, and Jay Alvear.

People to Watch

The Hostess 
Clare Galterio

“Show me some dance moves,” Clare Galterio, 26, says to an older gentleman at a slot machine. Sure enough, he starts up with a jig of sorts. Galterio joins in.

“I deal with eighteen-year-olds all the way up to eighty-seven-year-olds,” Galterio says. “I need to be able to talk to anyone.” You want her to talk to you, too, because Galterio is the in-person and on-air hostess who does the big giveaways at the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway. The public relations manager has given away cars, cash, even ShopRite gift cards to lucky gamblers. The filmed bits she does to promote the casino’s prizes are simulcast on cable and shown in casinos, racetracks, and bars all over the country (and a few in Canada, too). She’s also done segments for WPIX. Right now, she is auditioning for other TV hosting gigs. 

Galterio’s easy charm with people—which lets people do goofy dances without feeling silly—makes her a natural host. “I grab people from the audience. I do trivia. We do dance-offs.” Then again, Galterio is no stranger to performing. Growing up in Bedford, she danced her way through the studios of Westchester. “I’ve been dancing my whole life, but being on TV has always been my dream.”

Soon, that dream will be realized on an even bigger screen. Recently, she was cast—right off the casino floor—in Imogene, a movie starring Kristen Wiig and Annette Bening. She plays, fittingly, someone who gives away a car. “I did a tour for the directors when they wanted to film at Empire City,” she says. “They said, ‘Listen, we have a part written for someone to give away a car. Would you like to be in the movie?’ That was amazing because people don’t just give away roles like that, especially for speaking parts.”

Auditioning for other hosting jobs is not always easy. For example, she auditioned to be the new Nets announcer—on crutches. “I had to do it on a sprained ankle.” (She didn’t book the job, but the basketball season was truncated anyway.) In the meantime, life is good at Empire City. “I make people really happy,” she says. “I’m not the machine that they want to take out all of their frustrations on.”

Click through to read the rest of the feature package online.

Photo by Cathy Pinsky.

January Issue: Q&A with Cecil Suwal, Formerly of the Emperor's Club VIP Escort Service

Prison Break
Cecil Suwal goes from tabloid fodder to personal-growth expert.

When you meet Cecil Suwal, you’d never guess that the 27-year-old Harrison native was a felon. She’s pretty, well-spoken, and graduated summa cum laude from Fordham University; she plans to get a PhD. But she and her then-boyfriend, now husband, Mark Brener, 65, were both sent to prison for running the Emperors Club VIP, the escort service that brought down Eliot Spitzer.

Suwal pleaded guilty in 2009 to money laundering, conspiracy, and conspiring to promote prostitution and served six months in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. (Brener was sentenced to 30 months.) “Prison was extremely difficult,” she says. “We lost everything. But I can’t necessarily say I regret it, as it has helped us grow up in ways that we wouldn’t have had if we were still living the life we were living before.”

After a brief return to Westchester post-prison, Suwal and Brener are reunited, married, and together have written a self-help book, The Science of Activating Your Supreme Power, and founded a website theoneworldinitiative.com, They’ll also be teaching a personal-growth class at The Learning Annex in Manhattan. We asked Suwal about her experiences.

[Q&A Excerpt]

What was your reaction when Mark told you he was running an escort service? Did you have any reservations about working there yourself? Conceptually, for me, an escort service is okay—a prostitution ring is not. An escort service is designed to fulfill needs like having a date on the town, traveling together, and going to dinners and shows. That idea seemed perfectly legitimate and fun in my eyes.

What was prison like? Prison was the absolute most difficult time period in my life. I was isolated from the rest of the world, isolated from my family. I had to leave my school, leave my entire life and everyone I loved.

And now you’re married? Mark wanted to marry me before. I wasn’t ready. Being separated from him made me realize I was ready to marry him. Being away from him meant that I experienced life without him, and I could say that I preferred life with him to life without him.

How did your previous experiences inform the book you’ve written? We wanted to write a personal-growth book. Mark and I were always trying to help people, though, clearly, the vehicle we were using wasn’t a good idea.
Click through to read the rest of the Q&A online.

The Daily Traveler: Hangover Cures


Recover on New Year's Day Like the Cast of The Hangover Part II

The Bangkok Cure: Kill That Hangover with Vitamins—and Another Drink
Alex Holzer, mixologist at The Dome at Lebua in Bangkok, Thailand, has a cocktail with a special connection to hangovers, because it was “specially created for the cast and crew of The Hangover Part II,” he says. In addition to some hair of the dog, Holzer loads his cocktail up with healthful ingredients: “Honey is a source of carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and protein. The Chinese have known about the medicinal benefits of green tea since ancient times, using it to treat everything from headaches to depression. Rosemary contains antioxidants and is an excellent source of Vitamins A, B6 and C, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and copper. Its connection with memory has been noted for a long time. Green apples contain sodium, and we add Vitamin C by making juice out of it to maintain the green clear color.”

  • 1 oz Chivas 12-year-old blended scotch whiskey
  • 1 oz Zen green tea liquor
  • .3 oz Martini Rosso
  • .5 oz green apple juice
  • .3 oz Angostura Bitter
  • .3 oz honey/rosemary infusion (house-made)
  • garnish with a rosemary sprig

Click through to read hangover cures from London, Sydney, Moscow, and Milan on The Condé Nast Traveler website.

The Daily Traveler: Underground Tours

Underground Tours that Won't Make You Miss the Sunlight

The most memorable experiences are not always up on the surface—sometimes you have to go underground. Of course, journeying to the center of the Earth isn't always easy: Right now, Brooklyn railway historian Bob Diamond is suing New York City for access to an old Long Island Railroad tunnel where he used to take groups. Though we won't know the outcome of his case for a while, in the meantime here are five underground tours that are so interesting you won't miss the sunlight.

The Coolest
Bill Speidel's Underground Tour

Location: Seattle, Washington
Cost: $8 for children, $13 for students and seniors, $16 for adults
The Tour: After the Great Seattle Fire rolled through Pioneer Square in 1889, the city took the opportunity to rebuild on top of the ruins, protecting itself against floods, mud, and seepage that had plagued the low-lying area. Bill Speidel's Tour takes you through what remains of the old city, where places that were once first-floor storefronts and streets remain eerily intact. FYI: Come thirsty—tours begin at Doc Maynard's Public House, a college-crowd bar known for its live music.

Click through to read the rest at the Condé Nast Traveler.

Photo: Bill Speidel's Underground Tour, Seattle, Washington

PopMatters's 75 Best Albums of 2011

For PopMatters's year-end round-up of the 75 best albums of the year, I contributed the write-up for No. 55.

They Might Be Giants
Join Us

They Might Be Giants has been making music for close to three decades, but the band never abandoned a spirit of experimentation. Though John Flansburgh and John Linnell’s songs always bear their personality, the band never settled on one signature sound or settled in to writing one type of song over and over. This diversity is present throughout Join Us, an album that offers “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”, a sparkling, the La’s-style pop song; “Judy Is Your Viet Nam”, a straight-ahead rock anthem; “Dog Walker”, which features heavy use of crazy digital vocal effects; and “Old Pine Box”, which comes across almost like a folk song. The arrangements on Join Us are sparer and with less elaborate instrumentation. The stripped-down aesthetic recalls They Might Be Giants's earliest albums, when the band was an experimental two-some, but the immense strength of the craft evident on Join Us proves that the Johns have learned a thing or two about songwriting over the past 30 years.

Click through to read the rest of the list at PopMatters.

PopMatters: The 75 Best Songs of 2011

For the site-wide list of the best songs of the year, I contributed the write-up to number 12.

The Strokes “Under Cover of Darkness”
The Strokes have never been able to recapture the acclaim that followed the band’s debut, but, as a song, “Under Cover of Darkness” bears all of the hallmarks that made Is This It such a success. It comes in the same package of world-weary attitude and effortless cool. Its lyrics tap into the same universal anguish—the band’s lyrics were never poetic so much as they were relatable—and include phrases you might hear outside of any dorm in America. (The lyrics to the big, rousing chorus are “Don’t go that way, I’ll wait for you.”) “Under Cover of Darkness”, however, surpasses its predecessors by moving beyond the droning guitar sounds and allowing for more playful melodies, keeping the Strokes from, as they put it, “singing the same song for ten years”.

Click through to see the story at PopMatters (and read the rest of the list).