Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 21, 2015
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Idol, Rob a Bank, Scorpion
American Idol began as a kind of stunt, like most "reality" programming.
Instead of coming up with stories and scripts, we'll let people bring their stories
to us. It'll be fun to watch the tryouts -- especially the horrible, obnoxious, or
how-sad auditions. And who knows? Maybe we'll get some hit records out of
Right from the start, American Idol outperformed any rational expectations.
The first winner, Kelly Clarkson, became a genuine recording star -- so that
Idol could claim to be the launching pad for a career.
At first, Idol competitors seemed to hover around a single kind of singing --
overdecorated with runs, top-volume, big-voice singing. The singer-songwriter
who creates new music and new songs need not apply -- there'd be no room at
Idol for a James Taylor or a Joni Mitchell, should someone of that quality come
And half the entertainment was hate-based -- the despicable auditioners
whose furious responses were replayed over and over and over again; Simon
Cowell, who was needlessly insulting to would-be competitors who had done
nothing to invite or deserve his "cleverness."
But over the years, Idol got better. In the past couple of years, the how-sads
have dropped to a minimum, and instead, the auditions are a celebration of
people with interesting stories who sing pretty well -- instead of an exhibition
of the most appallingly bad singers in America.
Simon Cowell is gone -- and not missed. The fake "arguments" between
Cowell and announcer Ryan Seacrest went away. The inarticulate judging of
Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson has been replaced by insightful comments
from genuine stars who can comment intelligently on music, performance, and
Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, and Harry Connick, Jr., have gone far beyond
representing their genres of pop, country, and jazz. Lopez and Urban are
genuine stars, not just in the tabloids but on the stage. And Harry Connick,
coming from relative obscurity as far as most Americans were concerned (I've
been a fan for years), has earned his place as the wittiest and wisest of the
judges -- the guy who understands how music works and schools us all.
I started watching Idol in season 3, the year Fantasia Barrino won. In a way,
she represented the greatest weakness of the competition -- one that continues
to this day. Fantasia was a gorgeous singer, with a spunky personality that we
liked -- but she wanted to be a hip-hop singer, while she won Idol by
covering pop standards.
Her finest moment was sitting on the edge of the stage singing Gershwin's
"Summertime" -- but after she won, her first album was so radically different
from the music that won the contest for her that it did not do particularly well.
Instead, a late-round loser, Jennifer Hudson, found a much better career --
singing exactly the kind of music that Idol's audience had come to expect.
A partial cure came when the judges began letting rock and country singers
into the contest. Rocker Chris Daughtry was eliminated way too soon -- but
has been one of the most successful Idol alums anyway, as front man for a
band of his own making. While Carrie Underwood, a country singer, became
the biggest star to emerge from Idol -- opening the door to country music as
a staple of the Idol stage.
Some of the winners have sunk almost immediately into obscurity. I loved (and
still love) Taylor Hicks's singing and performing, but I'm apparently in a tiny
minority. Other Idol winners have also had only middling careers (so far), while
some runners-up have done surprisingly well.
But the problem that remains, and which was set forth very clearly in this
fourteenth -- and arguably best -- season of the show, is this: The record
producers who dominate the show don't actually like the most original
Sometimes they win anyway -- but this year, I have never seen a clearer
example of Idol deliberately sabotaging the likeliest winner, handing the contest
to Nick Fradiani, a very talented singer who grew wonderfully through the
season. I don't mean to denigrate his good fortune, which he earned.
My point is this: Clark Beckham was a very different kind of singer. He would
never be a stage-strutting dancer-singer. Instead, he was reminiscent of
Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips -- soulful, bluesy, but with truer pitch and
But there was a confrontation mid-season over his insistence on playing licks
on his guitar during his performances. Scott Borchetta, the bossy "mentor"
who is supposed to "guide" the contestants, had a valid point: There were
excellent musicians on the stage who could play all the guitar licks anybody
might want. And it was a singing and performing contest, not a contest in
That's quite logical. Except for this: Singing is an art, and it comes out of a
place in the artist that is nearly immune to logic.
The fact is that anybody who watched this season of Idol knew that Clark
Beckham sang best when he was also playing piano or guitar. Without an
instrument to occupy his body while he sang, he was lost -- he had no idea
what to do with his hands and feet if he wasn't playing something.
That's not a flaw, it's just a fact. And if Scott Borchetta were not a bully, he
would have realized that Clark Beckham's instinct was his own best guide.
Instead, when Clark flouted Borchetta's "advice" (i.e., insistent demand) and
hung on to his instruments, I think the show's whole leadership became
Clark's enemy. It came to a head during the finale, where he and Nick
They both did splendidly with their own kind of music; it would have been hard
to guess who would win.
But then they each performed the "hit" song that would be their first release if
they won. The songs were supposedly written for them -- and Nick's was.
It was actually a pretty good song (as they have rarely been) and it was exactly
the kind of rock-and-roll anthem that Nick had learned to perform very well.
So he nailed it.
Clark Beckham's "hit" song, however, was pretty mediocre to start with, no
matter who sang it. Most telling, however, was the fact that it was exactly the
kind of song that Beckham had never performed well. He didn't have the
right kind of voice for it; it used none of the best features of his voice.
He put his heart into it, but as I watched him, I thought: He knows that they
sabotaged him. He knows they gave Nick a perfect song for him -- and they
also gave Clark a song designed for Nick's performing style.
The next night, in the results show, we saw even more clearly how Clark had
been punished, because his "celebrity duet" was with Michael McDonald,
one of the best, most soulful singers ever to perform in American music.
Clark and McDonald sang "Takin' It to the Streets" -- a powerful anthem and
the perfect song to show off everything that Clark does well.
There aren't many singers who can hold their own with McDonald -- but Clark
was so passionate and so technically spot-on -- even as he played piano with
virtuosity -- that there were times when it seemed to me that Clark was doing
a better job than McDonald. Or -- more likely -- that McDonald was
generously letting the young boy shine.
It reminded me of the wonderful moment at the end of That Thing You Do, when
the young drummer, in the aftermath of the collapse of his one-hit band, the
Wonders, gets a chance to jam with a jazz musician he idolizes and lay down
the tracks so he can keep a record of what they did.
That's how it felt when Clark Beckham and Michael McDonald performed
together -- an old pro and a brilliant novice, enjoying each other's talent
as they made music together.
The Idol producers knew exactly what Clark Beckham could do most brilliantly,
because they set him up to have that moment on the last show of the season --
after the voting was over.
But just before the vote, in the final head-to-head competition between Clark
and Nick, they gave Nick the perfect song to show him at his best -- and gave
Clark absolutely nothing. A crap song, which had to be performed in exactly
the way that Scott Borchetta had pushed Clark so hard to learn.
Jimmy Iovine, the mentor during several earlier years, often gave advice
that wasn't followed -- but he never showed anger. He seemed to want to help
even those who ignored his advice to do their best. Borchetta seems not to
focus on the contestants -- he gives off a vibe of arrogance and self-love
that makes his bits on the show unpleasant to watch.
And as I watched that final night of competition, it was as if Borchetta were
saying, "You refused to learn to perform the way I told you you'd have to
perform if you were going to win. Now you'll pay for stiff-arming my advice."
Clark paid all right. Maybe he would have lost anyway. But on the night of the
results show, it was obvious to me, at least, that if Clark had been given a song
that was suited to his talent (which they claimed they were doing, but were
not), he might have had a chance.
It was the meanest thing I've seen happen on Idol since Simon Cowell left.
The show's producers picked the winner they wanted -- Nick Fradiani is
exactly the singer they know how to produce and market -- and sabotaged the
Well, anybody who thinks reality shows are either real or fair doesn't
This sabotage of Clark Beckham had nothing to do with the panel of judges,
however -- and I'm relieved that all three judges are returning next year. The
fifteenth season will be the last of American Idol, and unlike most shows,
instead of bottoming out in quality they are currently creating the best version
of the show that has ever existed.
Why, though, if this is the "best" that Idol has been, are they pulling the plug?
I think the answer is that, quality aside, Idol has simply exhausted our
attention. When it was new, it had the power to surprise us. The outrageously
bad singers and bad judges were entertaining and controversial -- and people
really cared who won.
But over the years, the quality of the ensemble of contestants has risen so
high that by the time they get to the final four or five, any of them would have
been a credible winner in any other year.
The first year I watched, Season 3, only a couple of singers really had a chance
at stardom. Most had such weak voices that a song with a full octave range
was beyond them. They could only sing well in a three-note sweet spot, and
even then they didn't sing that well.
A lot of the contestants got votes cause they were kinda sweet and they
tried really hard.
Now, though, they actually have to be good. And if they can't rise to the level of
the competition, the voters abandon them. It seems that the audience, like the
judges, has gotten better.
Yet that very improvement has made the show less compelling. You don't vote
frantically in order to prevent someone awful from taking the place of your
favorite. There isn't anybody awful.
In previous years, there were some passionate down-to-the-wire contests:
Ruben Studdard vs. Clay Aiken. David Archuleta vs. David Cook. Adam
Lambert vs. Kris Allen. We cared.
But this time -- heck, we liked all of the singers in the final rounds. If Jax had
been in the finale, we would have accepted it because she deserved to be there
as much as anybody. Ditto with Rayvon.
And here's my prediction for next season: Everybody who put off auditioning
for any reason will be there because this is their last chance. It's quite possible
that we'll have the best contestants ever.
But in a competition among really talented people, the outcome makes less of a
difference. So final season or not, the number of viewers may slacken. It'll be
interesting to see.
Meanwhile: Nick Fradiani is the singer who, in the whole history of Idol,
improved the most, learned the most from the beginning to the end of the
season. Some of what he learned came from Scott Borchetta; some came from
the excellent advice of the judges; some came from his own experience as he
tried new stuff on the stage.
He ended up doing a great job, and he's one of the best of the Idol winners. I
hope he has a recording career to match.
I can't help it that the album I'm looking forward to the most is Clark
Beckham's. Especially if Scott Borchetta comes nowhere near it, from song
selection to recording to mixing.
Once you start bullying and sabotaging somebody, it's hard to stop; and Clark
Beckham deserves to work with people who believe in him and the kind of
music and performance he wants to create.
When Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of
Freakonomics, come out with a new book, it's guaranteed a place on the
Why? Because they earned it. Even though it's fun to listen to an economist
friend of mine take apart the faulty reasoning in some of their causal
speculations, the one thing Freakonomics and its successors have always done
is to make us see things we thought we "knew" in a fresh way.
They haven't actually taken on any of the hard cases -- the dogmas of fake
science that have become shibboleths for the Inquisition of the Left. But not
everybody has to be a hero ... or a sacrificial victim.
However, before you pick up When to Rob a Bank, you need to know a
couple of things. This book is not a carefully crafted sequel to the
Freakonomics books. Instead, it's a collection of the authors' blog postings
in response to reader questions and arguments.
The result is fascinating -- I read the whole thing in one sitting, and enjoyed it
all. But it is not coherent. Even the title is hopelessly misleading. You will
not be told when is the best time to rob a bank. There's a mini-essay with
that title, but the authors decline to provide bank robbers with a guide to when
they are most likely to succeed.
So the title makes a promise the book doesn't keep.
Still, as long as you remember that the subtitle is And 131 More Warped
Suggestions and Well-intended Rants, you won't be disappointed. The
authors' voices are still highly readable, their process interesting. And they
don't pretend to be doing anything more significant than what they achieve.
In other words, they may sometimes be wrong, but they're not delusional. And
they're interesting and entertaining every step of the way.
Early in my theatre "career" I learned something important: It's very hard for
an actor to play a character that's smarter than he is. I remember being
assistant director on a faculty-directed production of Flowers for Algernon, the
Daniel Keyes story of a mentally retarded man, Charly, who is given a drug that
produced extraordinary intelligence in mice.
It works on Charly, too, so the actor has to show the transition from
inarticulate brain damage to a higher-than-Einstein IQ. Our actor was a very
talented young man, whom I worked with often during our college careers --
but when it came to playing "smart Charly," he was completely at a loss.
Most American actors signal "intelligence" by adopting an overarticulated style
of speech that often comes across as an "English accent." This is the usual
pattern for evil geniuses in bad movies -- so much so that they often simply
cast an English actor in the role.
But this is absurd. There are geniuses with southern accents and Brooklyn
accents and Boston accents. And geniuses can have slovenly diction just like
Hard as it is to act smart, it's way, way harder to write smart. I remember
reading Thomas Disch's sci-fi classic Camp Concentration, which also dealt with
people who are induced to perform at genius level. The main character
happens to be a writer, so Disch had the chutzpah to show us how this guy
wrote when he was a genius.
Suffice it to say that nothing about the writing suggested above-average
intelligence, let alone genius; it was quite sad, and made it impossible to
believe the story from that point forward.
People with high verbal intelligence do tend to use an elevated vocabulary, but
not to show off. They use big or unusual words because they happen to be
the right words; they don't substitute sesquipedalian synonyms when shorter
words would do.
No, the big-word/rare-word showoffs are the people who want others to think
they're smart. They're faking it, and actual smart people quickly recognize the
difference between a wannabe and the real thing.
Which brings me to the excellent writing on the television show Scorpion. The
premise is that "Walter O'Brien" -- a fictionalized version of the real Walter
O'Brien -- is a genius-level computer geek who has assembled a team of
similar geniuses in different areas.
One is a genius "behaviorist" who can decode and predict human behavior;
another is a mechanical genius; still another is off the charts in math.
But they are all, in one way or another, social misfits, unable to process or
cope with normal human life. So they've recruited a waitress who happens to
have a child who is a savant-level genius -- with some markers of autism. The
waitress (played by Idol-finalist Katharine McPhee) helps them all cope with
the real world, while they help her cope with her son.
OK, there is one serious problem with this premise. While there are "geniuses"
who have a hard time coping with regular life, there are plenty of people with
ordinary intelligence who are socially challenged -- and in exactly the same
ways as this bunch of misfits.
The only difference is that, because they are marketably smart, people have to
deal with them instead of just rejecting them the way the human species
But there is no requirement that in order to be smart, you have to find it
impossible to cope with the regular world in the regular ways. I've known a lot
of really smart people, and most of them conform to normal social
In fact, I often find that fakers -- people who want to be thought smart -- will
cultivate obnoxious traits in order to demonstrate their genius-level
In my experience, genius excuses nothing: A genius who beats his wife is a
wife-beater; a genius who embezzles money is a thief. And besides, most of the
people who behave very badly are not geniuses at all; if they were, they'd
recognize how counterproductive their behavior is.
But let's set aside that quibble and say that in Scorpion, these smart people
happen to have certain social disabilities. We'll just ignore how often the show
implies (or outright says) that all geniuses are socially limited and need a
regular person to translate for them and guide them.
What really matters is that in episode after episode (and I've binge-watched
most of the first season now) the stories are very good, and the characters
are quite believable. Definitely the actors perform them well -- without
resorting to fake English accents or other crutches that bad actors rely on.
Writing series television is hard, because characters quickly reduce to their
eccentricities unless some truly excellent writers are involved. Nick Santora,
the creator of Scorpion, has a mixed record in this area. His 2005 series Prison
Break created powerful stories with excellent characters.
But the writers couldn't let go of a villain who needed to leave for the series to
keep being believable.
Santora also had some involvement with Lie to Me, one of the best series
ever on TV; and there are other writers on Scorpion with even more promising
I'm thinking specifically of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who are executive
producers on Scorpion. In TV, that's generally the top writing credit -- though
with eight people getting executive producer credit, I'm not sure who wears the
Still, Orci and Kurtzman have something to do with Scorpion, and that's a good
thing, because look at what they've done before. They wrote the brilliant
Star Trek reboot films, and worked on a lot of huge action pictures, making
them better than they needed to be.
They're the kind of writers you bring in as script doctors, to figure out what
isn't working and fix it (though they can't fix bad movies if people don't do
the things they suggest).
What I've seen of their influence on film projects is that they're all about
making characters real and compelling, and helping stories to make sense. So
whatever their role on Scorpion is, the result is consistent with their influence
everywhere else: strong stories and memorable characters.
How long can Scorpion keep up its high quality? I'm afraid it's such a precious
concept that it may not be able to sustain a long run. Think of Law & Order --
the series of series that will not die. One reason these Dick Wolf creations last
so long is that the main characters mostly do their job.
That is, each episode is about that particular case, and not about the soap
opera of the regular characters' lives. The classic Moonlighting died because it
forgot that rule -- to make each episode work as a standalone story. Law &
Order and its spinoffs lasted forever in part because they never forgot it.
So we'll see how Scorpion does at keeping the regular characters' storylines
from dominating so much that the episodes stop being good. For now, though,
I can promise you that the first season, when binge-watched, is very good, and
I have high hopes for seasons to come.