Friday, December 31, 2010

Musings on Good Dancers, Bad Dancers, and the Surprisingly Subjective Nature of Deciding Which is Which (A Very Long Essay)

Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
- Bob Dylan

It is a truism that the more one learns, the less one knows. When we know only a little about something, we have a shining certainty, but with knowledge comes perspective, which leads to the question: How sure can any of us really be about anything?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “good” dancers. Swing dancers, specifically, since that’s what I spend most of my time doing.

For many years, I thought of good dancing in purely linear terms. I had the image of a ladder in which there were people above and below me. I think most people I know are similar, feeling sure about who the good and bad dancers are, who is great, who is terrible.

Dancers also generally have an opinion of where they are on the skill ladder. They are often wrong. Most commonly, dancers who have been doing it for a while assume they are better than they are. Many dancers complain vociferously about dancers deluded in this way, and most of those complaining are just as deluded. Much in the way that people think they have great singing voices until they record their voice, most dancers assume they are moving beautifully until they see themselves on video. (Some dancers, newer to the scene, will, refreshingly, think they’re worse than they are.)

The cold hard fact of social dancing is that when the dance is bad, it might not be your partner’s fault. It might be your fault. Or it might be something else entirely, and that something else is the point of this essay.

What is a Good Dancer?

So let’s begin by thinking about what good partner dancing is.

In the most subjective sense, a “good” dancer is someone you enjoy dancing with. But among people who have taken a lot of classes and learned a lot of technique, the term is often used to refer to people who have good technique; good dancers have good dance posture, good balance, good musicality, a good connection with their partner and a feel for the physics of the dance.

To some extent, that is all true.

But before we worry about technique, let’s think about what partner dancing is; dancing to music with a partner.

At its simplest, it is what is referred to by dancers, derisively, as “wedding dancing.” Wedding dancing is what people who don’t dance do at weddings when they try and recreate the vague notion in their head of partner dancing. They hold hands, they sway back and forth, they spin around. Wedding dancing is ugly to watch and it is terrible to dance with someone who thinks that is what dancing is. But is it inherently bad?

It depends. If they are having fun and they are dancing on the beat, well, it is a successful dance. If they are communicating through movement – that is, if the leader successfully gets the follow to turn the direction he wants her to – then it is even a successful partner dance.

It is, in fact, street dancing, and street dancing can be a very interesting thing.

On Street Dancing

I learned to dance in dance schools, and wasn’t aware of street dancing for many years. It came to my attention first when I went salsa dancing at a bar in the East Village. The dancers there, all Hispanic except for me and my friend - were clearly not people who had learned to dance in a school. While I had learned specific footwork and a lot of turns, these people were holding each other close, moving to the music, doing nothing elaborate but looking really sexy and cool. They seemed not like people who were taking dance classes but like people who had been dancing in salsa clubs for years, just making it up as they went along. (Years later I discovered blues dancing and realized that street salsa was much closer to blues dance than to school salsa.)

I once spoke to a guy who had grown up somewhere in Central America and had started dancing salsa as a teenager. He said salsa dancing was just dancing to salsa music. When I asked how he learned the basic step, he said, “there is no basic, you just dance to the music” as though I was a little slow.

Not all dances are street dances. Some are created and popularized by dancers, like the Foxtrot, which was presumably invented by Harry Fox and popularized by dance superstars Vernon and Irene Castle. But many start as street dances. Thus dances are created locally to popular music. I met an elderly woman who told me when she was young, swing dancing was different in each borough of New York, where she grew up; it was just kids who knew how to dance figuring out how to dance to new music and teaching other kids in the neighborhood what they were doing.

Some of those kids were in Harlem, and their version of swing dancing, Lindy Hop, is the one that caught on. It came out of older dances like the Charleston, and was popularized first by entertainers like Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers then was brought in somewhat altered form to Hollywood by Dean Collins and was altered for the masses by the Arthur Murray Studios in the form of East Coast Swing, a somewhat simplified variant that focused more on 6-count than 8-count steps to make it easier to learn for people familiar with Foxtrot. (At least this is what I have gleaned over the years.)

On Dance Schools

When a street dance becomes popular enough, dance schools start teaching it and it becomes codified. Much in the way that grammarians did not invent English but did decide on a set of rules so that people would speak it the same way, dance schools take the street dance and chop it up into clearly definable, teachable movements bite-sized bits so that anyone can learn it. This is not bad in itself – we can’t all pick up dance steps just by watching – but it does create a mindset in which there is a right way and a wrong way to dance, whereas in street dancing right or wrong is more a matter of, does it work, is it fun, does it look good, and did anyone die?

I learned Lindy Hop at the Sandra Cameron Dance Center, a dance school whose main claim to swing fame was that they employed Lindy legend Frankie Manning as a teacher. Sandra’s had practice sessions for their students twice a week, and for the first few years that is where I did most of my dancing. It was pretty clear who was a good dancer and who wasn’t, and I generally had a strong sense of where I was in the skill hierarchy.

Things changed when I started going out to swing dance events. People did not dance much like my fellow students at Sandra’s. Many dancers focused more on musicality and flair than on learned steps. It was both exciting and annoying, as many people focus on style before they really understand how to dance. But the experience changed my dancing for the better.

On Snooty Dancers

When you go out social dancing, some people will not dance with you. Most will, but there are a few people who stick to a small circle of acquaintances. These people are often thought of as being good dancers, partially because many of them look good when they dance, and partially because we always assume that people who think they’re too good for us actually are too good for us.

For a long time I thought the same, but had to reconsider after a dance teacher gave me his thoughts on those cliquish dancers. What he said, as best I can remember, was:

“They don’t dance with you because they think they’re better than you, but they’re not. Most of them don’t really follow. They have memorized leads to certain moves, and if they feel that lead, they do that move automatically, regardless of what you are trying to lead.”

Was this possible? Were the snootiest people on the swing scene nothing but back-leaders? Did they look good when they danced only because they were favoring their individual movements over the integrity of the connection? I began to think that perhaps looking good was simply a different skill from feeling good. If you have a dance background in jazz or ballet or modern you might be able to look great, because you know how to move, but you might feel awful, because you have terrible partnering skills.

Every once in a while one finds oneself in a club so empty that one of those follows who always says no surprises you and says yes. And dancing with those cliquish dancers seemed to prove that dance right. Because I found most of them terrible to dance with. They seemed confused by simple leads; things I could lead flawlessly with almost anyone left them standing there looking confused.

I began to think these dancers simply had a narrow competence. That when dancing with people they were familiar with, that they’d danced with hundreds of times, that they’d taken the same classes with, they could be amazing, but that they were rigidly incapable of dancing outside of their social circles.

But like every neat theory, there were holes in this one. For one thing, there were people I didn’t like dancing with who I knew were much better dancers than me. It can often be almost as hard to dance with extremely good dancers as it is to dance with extremely bad ones, because they have simply reached a point of subtlety in their movements that you aren’t competent to match. Yet, there were some amazing dancers I danced beautifully with, while other dancers who gave every indication of being just as good just annoyed me.

One of the big ah-ha moments in my search for answers came when the same dance teacher who had complained about cliquish dancers back-leading told me that one of my favorite people to dance with, who was also a teacher, didn’t know how to do a proper Lindy Circle. This was clearly nonsense. The problem, I suspected, was that these two had learned how to dance from Lindy teachers with radically different approaches to the dance.

While Lindy has been codified, the best dancers always play with the concepts they learn, trying to perfect and improve them, and then they teach other people. Thus, dance teaching evolves along separate tracks. They are all teaching Lindy Hop, they are all doing Texas Tommys and Swing Outs and Tuck Turns, but they have different approaches to compression, to stance, to counterbalancing. I can often tell what teachers someone has learned from by the way they dance, and I find I can sometimes improve my connection with a dancer by doing things in a way I learned from some specific teacher.

On Argentine Tango

Consider, for a moment, the Argentine Tango cross.

In Argentine Tango, the man can choose to step to his left so that he and the woman are walking on separate, parallel tracks. When this happens, the woman may take a step back and then slide her other foot back so that her ankles cross. How does this happen? It depends who you ask.

There are two basic approaches to the cross. One is that it is a lead move. You walk alongside the woman, and when you want her to cross, you give her a little push with your hand that forces her to cross.

The other approach is that the move is done by convention. If a man takes three steps in the outside track, she will cross on the third step. You do not, under any circumstances, lead this. It is simply a convention of the dance of long standing that every dancer should be familiar with.

I don’t know which of these is correct. Presumably I could go to Argentina and ask a 100 year-old dancer and he or she could say, this is the tradition, and I could say, that’s right then. Or someone could argue that the tradition is not important, that Tango is a living dance and that regardless of what was being done 80 years ago, this is the way to do it in the modern age.

I don’t really care which is right. I go with the cross by convention, because that’s how I learned it, but if I’d learned it the other way, I would do it the other way.

My point is, these two methods are both taught by a great number of teachers, and they are incompatible. If someone schooled in one method dances with someone schooled in the other method, there are going to be issues. She is not going to cross when he expects her to, and he’ll think, she doesn’t know how to dance. He’ll force her into a cross, and she’ll think, he doesn’t know how to dance.

In fact, they both know how to dance, they just don’t agree on the ground rules.

With that in mind, let’s go back to swing dancing.

There is nothing I can think of in swing dancing with the sharp disagreement found in the Argentine Tango cross, but there are differences in how the dance is taught. I learned a sort of compression-release version, which is quite common, where tension is built up to the point where movement happens, at which point everything is relaxed until tension is needed to redirect the flow of movement. In other words, if I and a girl are holding hands, and I take a step back, tension will be created. When the tension reaches a certain level where the girl cannot comfortably hold her ground, she will move forward. At that point, the assumption is she will continue to move forward without any assistance from me, so I relax my arm and there is no tension until her movement takes her far enough past me to create tension again. (There’s more to it than that, of course; based on this description alone, swing dancing would simply involve the girl traveling back and forth as though she were attached to a pole by a bungee cord.

Some dancers, though, maintain a level of tension at all times. Some dancers are always a little slack. Some follows will always make big movements even if you lead small ones. When leading a follow at a certain speed, she may travel faster or slower than the lead intends.

Sometimes it’s just bad dancing. Sometimes the girl back leads, which means she guesses what is wanted and does it without really being lead into it. Sometimes the guy’s lead is so weak that there is no way to know what is wanted, and then the guy will be mad at the girl for not following, and sometimes a follow or lead grips their partner’s hand with so much force that a sprained wrist is a distinct possibility. There are definitely a lot of crappy dancers out there.

But when you get to a certain level, it’s not really a matter of crappy dancing anymore.

On Ebonics

Years ago I saw an English professor talking about the study of “black English,” by which was meant the dialect in which you hear phrases like “I be going to the store.” What the professor said was that, while this is generally described as ungrammatical, it is actually a dialect with its own built-in grammar. Its rules are different from those taught in school, but the rules exist, and just as every other mode of speech, children learn these rules by listening to those around them and then speak using these rules. It is an internally consistent dialogue that could just as easily be broken down and diagrammed and taught from textbooks as any other dialect. Grammarians chose a particular dialect and declared it “proper English,” but it is not intrinsically more right or more complex or requiring of more intellect than any other dialect. But it still sounds wrong to those of us who grew up with a different dialect that was reinforced in school.

Dance teachers have dance dialects, but there is no authoritative voice that can declare any particular dialect correct. If you are steeped in one Lindy dialect, others will sound wrong to you. And this is why great dancers say other great dancers don’t know how to dance, and great teachers say other great teachers are teaching incorrectly. Because they feel they were taught the right way, and any way that is not that right way is the wrong way.

Can differences in dialects be bridged? It probably depends on how wide the disparity is between two styles. I asked a teacher whose been performing and competing for years if at the highest level differences gave way to the underlying expertise of people with a deep understanding of body movement, and she said at any level there are people you just don’t connect with.

I came across an interesting post on a dance blog that starts with video of two top-flight Lindy Hoppers failing to connect well. They do fine a lot of the time, but then suddenly everything will fall apart and the follow will look completely perplexed. The blogger has an interesting analysis of why that happens, but the important thing for my point is that it happens.

That being said, the better I get as a dancer, the more people I can connect with. If I have trouble dancing with someone, I assume there’s something I could do different, and I like to try and figure out what that is. I don’t always succeed – it’s hard to pick up the rules of someone else’s dialect – but the attempt itself is instructive. Dancing is a conversation, and like any conversation, there is always common ground if you look for it. (Which is why, even though I understand the appeal of only dancing will people you feel are at or above your level, I still think people who do so are like those who go to a party and won’t talk to anyone but their friends: it’s a party, mingle for god’s sake.)

Concluding Remarks

There are bad dancers in this world. There are people who get on the dance floor and break even the most basic rules of partner dancing, sometimes injuring their partners in the process. But it is too easy to write off dancers you can’t connect with as bad, and more and more I see that what we call good dancers are simply dancers who speak with our particular accent. It is often easier to dance with a newbie follow who moves in a way that seems familiar than to dance with an experienced follow who does everything different from the way you learned it.

I know what I like in dancers, and what I don’t like. Some things I don’t like are, I’m pretty sure, just plain bad, but others are just personal preferences.

My current working theory is that it is impossible to figure out objectively how good other dancers are. Oh sure, you can tell when people are incompetent, and you can always tell the true dancers, those who move with breathtaking grace and beauty (most of whom are half my age and have been dancing twice as long as I have, meaning I can never come close to doing what they do), but all those people in between ... they may not be as bad or as good as you think they are.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Rally for Sanity, False Equivalency and the Affronted Left

I loved the Daily Show's Rally to Restore Sanity (my girlfriend and I went to it on the Huffington buses, although unfortunately the bus took so long we were only there for the last 45 minutes and couldn't get anywhere close to the rally itself). The concept was simple: public debate has become nothing but name calling, insults and lies, and we should all stop it. We should make nice.

In a world where everyone is accused of being Hitler, that seemed like a good idea.

Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann disagreed, at least in part. They both objected to lumping left-wing pundits with right wing ones.

Maher said:

“The message of the rally, as I heard it, was that, if the media stopped giving voice to the crazies on both sides, then maybe we could restore sanity. It was all nonpartisan and urged cooperation with the moderates on the other side forgetting that Obama tried that and found out…there are no moderates on the other side. When Jon announced his rally, he said the national conversation was dominated by people on the Right who believe Obama’s a Socialist and people on the Left who believe 9/11’s an inside job, but I can’t name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11’s an inside job. But Republican leaders who think Obama’s a Socialist…all of them.”
I couldn't find a transcript of Olbermann's discussion of the Rally, which you can find on youtube, but he and his guest Jonathon Alter discussed the fact that MSNBC prioritizes facts and journalism over opinion and political agenda, whereas FOX "News" does exactly the opposite, and functions more as a propaganda tool than as a news station. He also said the hard right is not going to start acting more reasonable just because the hard left lowers its rhetoric.

Those are good points, and if Jon Stewart really does have, as he mockingly promised on The Daily Show, a "Rally To Determine Precisely The Percentage Of Blame To Be Doled Out To The Left And The Right For Our Problems Because We All Know That The Only Thing That Matters Is That The Other Guys Are Worse Than We Are And/Or Fear," well, the right, particularly in the case of FOX, will be apportioned more of the blame.

It's true. In a tit-for-tat comparison, James O'Keefe (the miscreant who took down ACORN) plays with the truth more egregiously than Michael Moore, and Sarah Palin makes up more absurd lies than anyone on the left outside of 9/11 conspiracy nuts, who, as Maher points out, are not a part of the left-wing mainstream in the way birthers are a substantial part of the right. On you will find flat-out lies come more from the right, while the left's attacks are more likely to be just misleading or unproven (although the worst campaign ads of the season were the inexcusably sleazy commercials of Alan Grayson).

Yet, I don't think it's good enough to say, "why are you bitching us out, the other side is way worse."

"We're better than them" is a common excuse. In the 20th century, Communists throughout the world excused the bad behavior of Russia and China's because they claimed America was worse. Meanwhile, American's would answer any accusation of U.S. governmental oppression by saying, we're much better than Russia. You can always say, "I won't let gay people marry, but I least I don't want them executed" or, "I don't think women are as capable of men, but I wouldn't prevent them from voting," and point at the people who would do those worse things, but that doesn't mean you're right. It just means you're less wrong.

The truth is, both sides are full of hypocrites. I expect it from the right, because they lie so casually that it is just who they are at this point, but I don't want it on the left, because I want the left to take the moral high ground.

Olbermann, alas, often wallows in the same hypocritical mud as the Republicans (I can't speak too much to Maher, because I never watch him - I always found him facile and annoying). I remember a few years ago when the right wingers were complaining about some inflammatory comment on a left-wing site, and Olbermann made the very reasonable point that the site had no control over what people chose to post on their forums. Then, a year or two later, a right winger posted something inflammatory on a right-wing site, and Olbermann immediately jumped on that site, seemingly oblivious to the role reversal.

I am often bothered by the left. It bothers me the way Nancy Pelosi relies on meaningless talking points as much as anyone on the right (I think Joe Biden has the reputation of putting his foot in his mouth primarily because he is not afraid to say what he thinks, unlike most politicians). It bothers me when the left attacks free speech. As I pointed out before, you can't laud Lenny Bruce and then damn Don Imus, because they both said equally provocative and inappropriate things. It really bugged me when the left mercilessly went after beauty pageant contestant Carrie Prejean for saying she disapproved of gay marriage, both because people do have a right to their opinions and because, well, she was a really insignificant celebrity whose opinion was not remotely influential. It didn't matter what she thought, but she was attacked for months for what had been a fairly mild statement.

Yes, it's terrible when people are racist, sexist, homophobic or anything like that, but it's actually their right. People are entitled to believe what they believe. If you insist other people cannot express their opinions, you give other people the right to insist you keep your opinions to yourself.

I constantly have to watch out for my own hypocritical tendencies. For example, a while back someone created a dumb joke group on Facebook that basically encouraged God to kill Barack Obama. I learned about it when I got an invite to sign a petition demanding the group be deleted. And at first I thought, I should sign that. And then I thought, what would I think if this "kill Obama group" was a "kill Sarah Palin" group or a "kill George W. Bush" group? Would I sign a petition insisting Facebook delete the offending group? Hell no. I might not go so far as to join it, but I certainly wouldn't mind it.

In fact, in the 1980s, I wrote a song about how, if it weren't illegal, I would write a song encouraging people to kill Ronald Reagan. It was one of my most popular songs in the left-wing folk circuit I was a part of. I thought it was terrible to make a joke about killing Obama not because I had a problem with people making jokes about killing presidents but because I had a problem with people making that joke about a president I liked. But even though I think the people who joined that Facebook group (who vastly outnumbered all those who had joined any group suggesting we harm George W. Bush - the right is really far more savage than the left) are probably all idiots who believed Obama is a socialist Muslim ready to institute death panels, they have a right to believe that. People should use their free speech rights to counter these beliefs and educate people as best they can, but they should not criticize behavior on the right that they wouldn't think twice about were it coming from the left.

And that is why I like Jon Stewart; he believes in non-partisan civility. I often compared Bush Jr. with Hitler, and yet, he didn't gas a single Jew. I have tossed out words like "fascist" far too casually, and I think it's great that there is a national figure who is pointing out that "only Hitler is Hitler."

Is MSNBC as bad as FOX? Of course not. And even though Olbermann objected to being compared with Glen Beck, he did, in honor of being less provocative, suspend his Worst Person in the World segment. Olbermann also once apologized for an over-the-top attack on a Republican after being called on it by Stewart, even playing Stewart's entire Olbermann parody on Countdown. Would Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly do that? I don't think so. And if all Olbermann wants is to be a better person than Glenn Beck, he has easily cleared that hurdle.

But the point of the Rally to Restore Sanity was not, I believe, to encourage people to be slightly less of an asshole than the other guy. So while Maher and Olbermann are correct in saying the right is worse, they would be better occupied in thinking about how they can work to shed more light and less heat.

Friday, November 05, 2010

intolerance marches on

The 2010 election results were depressing but not remotely surprising. Once again, the Democrats did a terrible job of selling themselves because of timidity and stupidity, and if they keep this up Sarah Palin could be president in a couple of years. Pretty scary.

But for me, the scariest election result was Oklahoma's passage of an anti-Sharia law measure.

The law itself isn't important; there are barely any Muslims in Oklahoma and no one is using Sharia (Islamic) law there anyway. What is important is that, like the recent controversy over the Muslim center a few blocks from ground zero (as well as controversies over Mosques hundreds of miles from ground zero), this is a straightforward slap in the face of Muslims and a clear statement that they are considered, as a group, criminals with no rights.

The increasing oppression of Muslims terrifies me, because it could mean we are entering a dark phase in American history along the lines of putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps or blacklisting suspected communists and communist "sympathizers." There are people in this country who are devoting themselves to crushing Muslims, and I will not be surprised if we soon start seeing the passage of laws prohibiting Muslims from teaching in public schools and joining the army.

This cannot end well. If you tell a group of Americans that they are not American and that they do not have the rights of Americans, they tend to object. The Watts and Stonewall riots were both cases of disenfranchised groups expressing their outrage.

But while American Muslims may riot at some future point, if this oppression continues, they're not the ones I'm scared of. I am afraid rather of what happens when anti-Muslim attitudes reach that tipping point where it becomes dangerous to speak out against them.

I recently read a book on the 1950 Communist blacklist. What I found interesting was that, when the witch hunts first started, there were many people who spoke out forcefully against them. There were newspaper editorials and political speeches saying, this is wrong, this is un-American. But after a few years, few people were no longer speaking out, because it had become too dangerous; defending constitutional rights made you as much of a criminal as reading Marx. Right now, someone like Michael Bloomberg can take a principled stand in favor of sanity and tolerance, but if anti-Muslim hatred in this country keeps getting stronger and stronger, eventually everyone will be afraid to speak out. And once that happens, American Muslims are fucked.

Right now anti-Muslim sentiment is mainly coming from hardcore red state nut jobs, the same people who blathered on about Obama being a Muslim, but the idea that Muslims are dangerous lunatics is becoming a part of the philosophy of this country that extends beyond midwest Republicans.

So right now, I'm scared for American Muslims, and scared for this country, and, if we really entering yet another dark age of extreme intolerance, scared for people like me who speak out about it.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Fall 2010 New TV Series Capsule Reviews

As a lifelong TV junkie, I always feel an obligation to check out every fall television series. I skipped a few this year – Outlaw, because of its bad reviews and absurd premise (supreme court justice decides he can do more good in private practice), S#*! My Dad Says, because William Shatner is a joke and the commercials looked awful, and My Generation, which also looked painful from the commercials. But I saw at least part of an episode of everything else, and here’s what I thought.

Raising Hope

Premise: Young guy raises a baby.

Review: When I saw the commercials about a young doofusy guy raising a baby, I thought, there is a show I don’t need to see. Then I heard it had been created by the guy who created My Name is Earl, so I had to check it out after all. Like Earl, Raising Hope deals with poor people living in the margins who happen to all be really interesting, good-hearted characters. Also like Earl, the show is riotously funny.

Will I keep watching it? Absolutely

Follow-up: Still very funny. I showed an episode to my girlfriend and now she insists I keep the episodes for us to watch together on weekends.

Running Wilde

Premise: Spoiled millionaire woos do-gooder.

Review: Running Wilde was co-created by Michael Hurwitz, who made the brilliant Arrested Development, so of course I had to watch it even though the commercials were pretty dumb. Its opposite-attracts formula, in which a snarky millionaire still has a crush on a long-time love who is repelled by everything about him but still can’t resist him, is kept going by a lot of very clever humor, and while it’s not quite as good as Arrested Development, it’s definitely one of the better sitcoms this fall.

Will I keep watching it? Absolutely.

Follow-up: Still lots of fun.

The Event

Premise: Government conspiracy. Kidnappings. Aliens. That sort of thing.

Review: Interesting attempt at a Lost-style collection of mysteries each wrapped in their own enigma. Like Lost, The Event uses a lot of flashbacks, but they are shorter, hop around more in time and are used less to explain character and more to explain what is going on. So something will happen, and then you’ll have a flashback from a week earlier, and then that might go to a flashback a year ago, and eventually you wind up back in the present with a slightly better idea of what is going on. So far I’ve seen two episodes and while it’s not as good as Lost was in the beginning, it’s better than shows like FlashForward and The Nine that attempted the same sort of high-concept mystery but wound up creating more boredom than intrigue.

Will I keep watching it? Yes.

Follow-up: So far this has kept up my interest and left me curious and wanting more.

Mike & Molly

Premise: Ordinary people fall in love.

Review: This looked cute and funny from the commercials and turned out to be just that. It’s simply about two people beginning a relationship, and I’m going to assume they will just follow that straight through, with the two characters, who met at an OA meeting, getting to know each other, falling in love, getting in tiffs, and, if the show lasts long enough, getting married, having a baby and eventually (since the show is nice with a capital “N”) dying and going to heaven.

Will I keep watching it? Absolutely

Follow-up: This episode and the next one I saw were both quite funny. Then the two after that were unwatchable. Then I got around to watching the pilot episode, which was also terrible. It's a shame, because when it worked, it was good, but it's way too hit or miss, so I've stopped watching.


Premise: Lady chases down bad guys.

Review: Watched about 10 minutes of this, which mainly involved good guys running after bad guys. It didn’t grab me.

Will I keep watching it? Nope

Hawaii Five-O

Premise: Hawaiian cops or something.

Review: I’m old enough to remember the original Hawaii Five-O, and its success always puzzled me. It was just this square-jawed cops capturing generic bad guys sort of thing. I watched maybe 10 minutes of the first episode of this revival, which gives the main character a little macho back story but which looks to be similar in tone to the original, and then I turned it off.

Will I keep watching it? Of course not.

Hellcats (HS cheerleaders)

Premise: Girl who despises cheerleaders becomes one to win a scholarship.

Review: Hellcats is a real mixed bag. The actors are good and some of the dialogue is sharp and witty, but at other times the first episode was almost unbelievably moronic. For example, the protagonist tries out to be a cheerleader and completely screws up the choreography, instead just winging it. But the coach gets excited by her brilliant dancing and insists that all the cheerleaders start winging it. Seriously? I turned it off before the end; even the pretty girls in half-shirts weren’t doing it for me, as they all seemed oddly sexless. I could also do without the super-bitch who always has to be a part of these soapish shows.

Will I keep watching it? Nope.


Premise: Slacker detectives.

Review: I watched a little of this. It looked like it was trying for a Big Lebowski vibe. Honestly, I’m one of the few people who didn’t love Lebowski, so this show would have had to be much better than it was to keep me watching.

Will I keep watching it? No.


Premise: Ex-assassin/spy decides to destroy her former employer.

Review: This is an interesting way to revisit Nikita, the protagonist of two movies and a previous TV series, all of which involved her being forced to work as an assassin for a secret and often evil government organization. This time around, she has escaped the agency and is bent on ending its bloody career. The most interesting aspect of the pilot was the way she played cat and mouse with the agency. It was absurd but entertaining.

Will I keep watching it? After the first time I saw it I thought I would probably watch it again, but then when it came on a second time I just didn’t feel like it. For me it’s really borderline, so unless I hear really good things I probably will let it go its merry way without me.

Boardwalk Empire

Premise: Mobsters rule Atlantic City.

Review: Created by Martin Scorcese and starring Steve Buscemi, there is no way I was not going to check out Boardwalk Empire. The first episode was very good. I didn’t feel it was quite great, but it could easily become great. It’s certainly very interesting.

Will I keep watching it? Yes, unless my girlfriend cancels her subscription to HBO.

Follow-up: This one keeps getting better and better.

Detroit 1-8-7

Premise: Cop show

Review: I saw the first episode, and I liked it. I remember thinking it was a solid, entertaining show that had just enough originality in it to make it worth watching some more. But outside of that, I can’t remember a damn thing about it. Nothing.

(While watching another episode, I suddenly remembered something from the first episode, a scene in which a cop interrogates a suspect by simply staring at him blankly. The suspect gets nervous, starts talking, keeps talking, and hours later is telling the guy his entire life story and breaking down in tears. That's the sort of thing that makes this seem appealing.)

Will I keep watching it? I will, at least for now.

Follow-up: The more episodes I watched, the more generic this show seemed, with the interesting, quirky moments getting less frequent and less interesting. I stopped watching.

Better With You

Premise: Three couples, all related, get in situations and tell jokes

Review: Like Detroit 1-8-7, I can't for the life of me remember anything from this show unless I'm watching it. Part of that is just the painfully generic title. The show involves a couple who have been married 35 years and their daughters, one who has been with her boyfriend for 9 years and the other who has just got engaged to a guy she's known a couple of months, and it contrasts these relationships, which fall broadly into the categories blissful lust, deep understanding and loathing. It's generally funny, but by tomorrow I'll have forgotten what it's about again.

Will I keep watching it? Sure, why not.

Follow-up: In spite of being best described as generically funny, this one has been pretty consistently funny. It's pretty much the reaction I had to Friends when I first saw it, and like Friends, it grows on you.

The Whole Truth

Premise: Lawyers duke it out, then at the end of the show the truth of the case is revealed.

Review: Generic lawyer show aims for a Law & Order feel but doesn't really get it. The show goes back and forth between the prosecutors and defense, showing how they deal with evidence and investigate. Through the verdict you don't, in theory, know whether the person on trail is guilty. Unfortunately, in the first episode it seemed pretty obvious, making the final reveal anticlimactic. The first episode also wound up with justice being served, and it all seemed pretty gutless for a premiere that should have shown the audience why this show was a good idea.

Will I keep watching it? Pass

Follow-up: Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been canceled already.

The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret

Premise: Guy gets a job he’s not qualified for and just gets in deeper and deeper.

Review: Weird, twisted show starring David Cross as a schlub who accidentally gets a high pressured job in England and has already started melting down in the first episode. Each episode, I have heard, takes place the day after the previous episode, and the show is working towards a moment seen at the beginning of the first episode in which Cross is apparently being tried for a crime.

Will I keep watching it? Wouldn’t miss any of this for the world.

Follow-up: Still awesome


Premise: American runs a call center in India.

Review: Apparently some Indians are a bit irked about this show’s reliance on hackneyed Indian themes like sacred cows and spicy food. I can understand how annoying that would be if you’re Indian, but if you’re not it’s more likely to bother you simply because it’s such lazy comedy. But in spite of that, I kind of liked the show. Half of it is pretty dumb, but there are moments, like a girl who speaks in an inaudible whisper acting out a scene from a movie (it’s unclear which movie, but my guess is Taxi Driver) then proudly waiting for applause or an Indian who has studied America suddenly switching to a perfect southern accent that are actually pretty funny.

Will I keep watching it? For now.

Follow-up: This show has proven to be very likable. Yes, you could have a drinking game involving taking a drink every time some India stereotype is tossed out, but it's funny and well meant.

Blue Bloods

Premise: Family of cops.

Review: This glossy series about New York cops was somewhat rousing when it started off with Sinatra singing “New York New York” but lost steam once the actors started speaking (in what sounded to me like a Boston accent, but was perhaps a Queens or Staten Island accent, for all I know). First off, the show is very, very generic; I dare you to find anything in it you haven’t seen in 30 other cop shows. The series opener also had a rather murky and tedious approach to morality. One of the main characters tortures a criminal in one of those “ticking bomb” scenarios television is so fond of. Later the whole family sits around and debates whether it was the right thing to do, while carefully avoiding coming to any conclusions. This debating is admittedly less generic than the rest of the show, but not any more interesting.

Will I keep watching it? Hell no.

No Ordinary Family

Premise: Dysfunctional family develops superhuman abilities.

Review: Family almost dies but become superheroes instead. The show is a mix of superhero stuff and family stuff. The family is mildly dysfunctional (like most families) but everyone acts like it’s a huge crisis. The parents are a bit bored of each other. Will being superheroes fix the family? I don’t really care, but it’s fun to watch them run fast or read minds. If the dysfunctional-family theme doesn’t push the superhero theme out the window this show could be pretty cute.

Will I keep watching it? For now, yes.

Follow-up: I watched this for a few weeks, but as I feared, the family stuff overshadowed the superhero stuff, making the whole thing more of a soap opera than an action series. Which would be fine if the family drama were actually interesting and the characters weren't like those from a million other shows.