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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 it.

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 along.

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 The inarticulate judging of Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson has been replaced by insightful comments from genuine stars who can comment intelligently on music, performance, and career issues.

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 performers.

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 greater range.

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 musicianship.

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 performed head-to-head.

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 other guy.

Well, anybody who thinks reality shows are either real or fair doesn't understand television.

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 bestseller list.

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 anybody else.

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 usually does.

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 expectations.

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 nonconformity.

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 track records.

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 fanciest hat.

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.


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