The Sunday Magazine: American Idol 2.0

I am not sure about the health of broadcast television. Based on the announcements of the new shows for next fall it seems like the current attitude is if it got big ratings in the past exhume it and put it back on the air. The cynic in me knows that if you can strum some nostalgic chords in even an older audience those are good enough ratings in this current television landscape. As much as it feels creatively bankrupt I admit I’ve watched with more enjoyment than not.

In a case where the absence was hardly long enough to miss it American Idol returned just two years after it was over. I planned on watching the first few episodes then leaving it alone until maybe the finale. Turns out the producers know a good formula and how to remind me of what it was I enjoyed about this singing competition.

For this revival the show changed networks from Fox to ABC. You might not see that as something worth noting except ABC is part of the Disney entertainment family. That means there were going to be no missed synergies throughout the season. In many ways American Idol is a reality version of the Disney theme “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Which leads to the other change; talent paired with heartwarming stories were accentuated in the audition rounds. There were the very occasional trolls and clueless divas but they were overwhelmed by the people who could sing. Which then made the second phase of the competition more fun to watch.

Because they allowed us as an audience to get to know more of the contestants when the Hollywood Week part where they cut down to a Top 24 I had rooting interests. This meant I felt sad when some of them succumbed to the pressure. It also gave me stronger attachments to the one who made it through.

(l. to r.) Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, Ryan Seacrest, and Luke Bryan

I want to talk about this year’s judging panel; Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Katy Perry. They did a great job of finding a group of singers who filled all styles. They provided America an opportunity to vote for who and what style they liked best. They managed to also do this without becoming the focus of the show. That is my biggest problem with “The Voice” the panel are the stars not the singers. American Idol gets the balance right.

One final piece of my enjoyment of this year’s installment was the advancement of contestants who could sing. That meant a drag queen named Ada Vox made the Top 10. A young lesbian wife of a servicewoman made Top 7. The show was unafraid to put these out to America and allow them to decide if that was what their American Idol looked like.

Going into tomorrow’s final America wasn’t quite ready for that much change but the three contestants remaining have been among my favorites from the first weeks. I am going to have a difficult choice to see who gets my vote based on their performance.

Maybe bringing back the old isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

It gets hard to know when the hype has something behind it. Most of the time it is exactly what that word indicates, overblown expectations for something quite ordinary. I have boxes of hyped debut novels which are from authors never heard of again. Then there are the extremely rare occasions where the book exceeds expectations. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is one of those.

The plot of this new book is set in the West-African country of Orisha. Our entry into the world is through the eyes of Zelie who has the white hair which designates her a maji; a wielder of magic. The King of Orisha wants to eradicate magic; mostly by killing the maji. Zelie’s mother was one of the casualties. This sets her on the classic heroine’s path to restore her legacy against the oppression of the King.

Tomi Adeyemi

What sets this apart is we meet the children of that King; Princess Amari and Prince Inan. As the Marvel movies have done so well lately, their perspective provides a reason behind the brutality visited upon the maji. This is what makes a great story when the evil is not just cackling garden variety kind but one with a goal that is rooted in a flawed reason. The Prince and Princess cross paths with Zelie and the story takes off across Orisha leading to an epic cliffhanger.

 I know little about Ms. Adeyemi, but I was impressed at the level of detail in her magic system. This is sometimes a throwaway part of a fantasy series and it can set my teeth on edge when it is. Not here. From the first pages to the last the rules are adhered to. Magic McGuffins don’t appear to save the day.

Just as Black Panther did in comic books and movies; Ms. Adeyemi opens new avenues of myth to be mined for story by turning to Africa. As I read through the book I could feel the pride of Ms. Adeyemi for these myths being transformed into something new. These are completely new perspectives for me to delve into which make this a joy to read because I am learning as I go.

If you need a beach read for the upcoming summer add Children of Blood and Bone to your list.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Avengers: Infinity War

I usually hold off writing about the new movies until they have been out for a few weeks because I want to talk about plot points freely. With Avengers: Infinity War I realized talking about the plot points at any time would ruin the movie. So, I’m not going to do that. There will be mentions of things shown in the trailers and tv ads as to who is doing things in the movie with who but not the plot itself. I just haven’t been able to think of anything else for the last week since seeing this for the first time.

I have written in the past on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has found the secret ingredient for success; optimism. Leading up to watching Infinity War I watched a few of the movies I thought were the right appetizers. That sense of fighting for what each hero believes is right often at personal cost is written large across the MCU but particularly Infinity War. Our heroes believe in something. They don’t all necessarily believe in the same path to that something. That has allowed for some conflict. One of the things that the MCU has done so well is not to throw away what has happened in the past with a funny one-liner and press the reset button. In Infinity War the stress lines which have existed over the last two years of movies remain and are used for story purposes. Ten years of dangling plot threads are being picked up by the directing team of The Russo Brothers and used as jumping off points for Infinity War in the first act.

One of the thing The Russos do on a magnificent scale is to make each part of the movie as we move around feel like it is that set of characters’ movie. An example is when the Guardians of the Galaxy arrive on screen it feels like a Guardians movie. When we get to Wakanda it feels like Black Panther has continued. The other part of this is that into each of these settings we add in a few of the other characters. That they mesh so well again speaks volumes about the vitality of the MCU. What I can say is the character who spends the most amount of time with the Guardians needs to be in Vol. 3 because they fit right in as each Guardian interacts with them.

Finally, I am going to end on the villain Thanos. This is the second MCU movie in a row where the villain’s motives are more fully fleshed out on screen. Like Killmonger in Black Panther, Thanos also has a deep personal motivation for seeking out the Infinity Stones. In a movie full of heroes we want to see, that the time is taken to not make Thanos just something in their way is important. It is why when we reach the final act of the movie the stakes are definitively laid out. The audience knows the consequences and why each side is motivated to win.

Infinity War is a fitting culmination of ten years of movie storytelling every beat in the movie is spun from the past decade. The next year is going to be a long one to see how what is left at the end of Infinity War is handled. Based on this movie I have no doubt it will be amazing.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Late-Night Talk Shows circa 2018

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One of the things I was looking forward to writing about in this column, when I started Colognoisseur, was the late-night television shows on the major networks. As I’ve recounted in those previous columns these shows have provided me companionship while staying up way too late. They have been a part of my life for over forty years now.

When I was writing about them in the first two years we were entering what I expected to be the next great era of this genre. CBS had Stephen Colbert and James Corden, NBC had Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, and ABC had Jimmy Kimmel. One of the reasons I watch is because in those five shows there was a dose of levity mined from a specific perspective which allowed me to turn the light off with a smile. There was a distinct variety to choose from.

For most of 2016 it was all that I desired as I could watch Mr. Kimmel for prankish humor along with the occasional Matt Damon skit. Mr. Fallon’s Box of Lies is still one of my favorite late-night bits. Mr. Colbert was showing his pop culture chops with brilliant cold opens with big stars. Mr. Meyers was the most topical as he gave his version of “Weekday Update”. Mr. Corden’s love of music lead to Carpool Karaoke and Crosswalk Musicals. Then in November 2016 something happened; the US had an election.

In the past the current President of the US was always a part of the nightly monologues but it was just that; a part. Over the past few months it has turned out that jokes about the President are not part of the monologue; it is the monologue. Instead of competing for original comedic material spanning many things I have been disappointed to find them spending too much time on one thing. They have thrown out variety for who can have the best President joke on the night.

I’m not saying that the President should be excepted from being the butt of jokes. That has been a part of late-night television for as long as I watched. Almost every night I know I’ve heard one joke at the expense of whoever was the current resident of the White House. It just feels unbalanced right now.

Over the past week I watched with this in mind. All five shows focused on the same Presidential events. All the shows spent up to half their monologue or pre-taped skits depended on them. Many of the jokes were variants of the others.

I understand the soul of a monologue should be current events but it doesn’t have to be all-politics and the President. I miss the days when they spent the same amount of time mining the latest silly YouTube viral video for laughs.

I have found myself turning off the television lately because my old friends have begun speaking in the same voice. What seemed like a Renaissance in late-night is starting to feel monotonous and mediocre. I am hoping that this will change because it worries me that what was fantastic is on the verge of being lost.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Once Upon A Time

One of my favorite cartoons when I was a child was a segment on the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show called “Fractured Fairy Tales”. In these vignettes the well-known fairy tales were twisted to tell a different story. All of them narrated by Edward Everett Horton it was like having an out-of-town uncle tell you the story you thought you knew in a different way. The current version of “Fractured Fairy Tales” has been unspooling for the last seven years under the name of “Once Upon A Time” on ABC.

The show was created by two of the writers from the show “Lost”; Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis. Their idea of the show antedated their time on “Lost” but they found no one was interested in a show about twisted fairy tales. Once “Lost” ended they pitched it to ABC again and this time their concept was picked up.

The story in the beginning was about a small town in Maine called Storybrooke where The Evil Queen had ripped all the classic fairy tale characters to the very not enchanted present day America. Only three characters were aware that they were under a curse; The Evil Queen, Rumpelstiltskin, and the Evil Queen’s son Henry. Henry comes to realize he is the son of a woman named Emma Swan who he needs to make believe that there is such a thing as magic. Henry tricks Emma to come to Storybrooke so she can live up to her role as The Savior.

For six seasons we watched as an extended cast of fairy tale characters would deal with present day dilemmas paralleled with flashbacks to their time in the Enchanted Forest. As it was with “Lost” those flashbacks provided the audience understanding into the basic nature of a character even when they didn’t remember who they were. Prince Charming and Snow White always tried to be the positive solution even when they thought they were David and Mary Margaret. At the end of last season many of our character arcs found their “happily ever after”. This final season has been very interesting as the original villains; The Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin are trying to find theirs. It is a testament to Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Kitsis that I am very much hoping for that result to two characters I loved to hate in the early years of the series.  

On May 18 the last page of “Once Upon A Time” will be turned. I am hoping it will be a grand send-off where even the darkest villains can change to find their happiness.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Return of “Roseanne”

I remember when “All in the Family” premiered on television it was so different. That it premiered later in the evening on the same night, Tuesday January 12, 1971; it had been preceded by “Green Acres” and “The Lucy Show” it really stood out. At a time when the Vietnam War was dividing the country along generational lines here was a comedy which laid out all the emotion with laugh out loud one-liners. What I remember most about “All in the Family” was it began discussions around the dinner table the next night. It was a valuable catalyst through which understanding might take place. The recent reboot of “Roseanne” has me thinking it might be the return of a sitcom which can also create a chance for understanding.

Roseanne cast in 1988

Roseanne Barr brought the original “Roseanne” to television in 1988. It portrayed a poor working-class family, the Conners, in Lanford. Illinois. It was an off-shoot of Ms. Barr’s stand-up comedy routine about her life as a “domestic goddess”. Just like “All in the Family” before it “Roseanne” portrayed the blue-collar life in America. There were not often easy answers yet always a sense of humor was found. For eight seasons this formula worked. Then in Season 9 they decided to have Roseanne win a lottery and all of a sudden the easy answers did show up. In a twist at the end, the show tried to make it the way Roseanne coped with her life by imagining an alternate reality. The show lost viewers and it was ended.

Roseanne cast in 2018

There has been a lot of nostalgia posing as creativity in television comedy as some of the most successful shows of the past are being reincarnated. The thing is none of those have interested me as it was rare that I wondered what happened to the characters on a sitcom after it ended. When I heard “Roseanne” was returning with the original cast I wasn’t sure if I would watch. I did sit down when it premiered and was instantly reminded of “All in the Family” as this felt like another show for a time when America has divided itself along fault lines.

The original kids have grown up and some of them have kids. Nobody has moved away from their blue-collar upbringing. The show opens with an open discussion of the Red-Blue political divide as Roseanne has not talked to her sister Jackie since the 2016 presidential election. Each voted differently and couldn’t let it go. Through the first thirty-minute episode they finally found an opportunity to talk without either giving up their beliefs while making me laugh. This is what most strongly reminds me of “All in the Family” as people who love each other can disagree while still loving each other. It also is a show which can allow for discussion to grow out of it, too.

Halfway through the first season back “Roseanne” has been full of laughs, a couple of tears, and the fostering of acceptance. If you haven’t caught on I highly recommend it.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Vina Falernia Carmenere Reseva from Elqui Valley, Chile

I think my favorite part of drinking wine these days is discovering a new region for myself. It is like discovering a new perfume brand the exhilaration comes in the exploration. Like perfume it all starts with a sample. I was at my local store and asked about something to go with my Easter leg of lamb. I was asked if I’d tried the Chilean carmeneres, which I had. It didn’t seem like the best match, but I was told of a small region in Chile that takes the grape and treats it like they do for Amarone in Valpolicella, Italy. That got my attention because Amarone della Valpolicella is exactly what I would pair with lamb but for just a dinner at home I wanted something more moderately priced. Enter the Chilean version from the Elqui Valley; Vina Falernia Carmenere.

The Elqui Valley turns out to be one of the more unique vinicultural areas in the world nestled between the Atacama Desert and the Andes while being close enough to the Pacific to get the cooling sea breezes. It is also unique because there is almost no precipitation or below-freezing temperatures. The saturated sunlight matched with the altitude creates a singular terroir for wine.

Aldo Olivier (l.) and Giorgio Flessati

Vina Falernia was founded in 1999 as an off-shoot of the Olivier family’s production of table grapes and Pisco fortified wine. Aldo Olivier realized there was potential for winemaking. He hired winemaker Giorgio Flessati and they began. They planted predominantly Syrah and Carmenere grapes. Because of the climate Sig. Flessati thought it would be ideal to try and emulate the Amarone-style of harvest.

That style is to allow the grapes to dry out on the vines by leaving them there for up to two months past peak harvest. Sig. Flessati can shorten what takes four months in Valpolicella because of the intense sunlight and the moderate temperatures.

Falernia Vineyard in the Elqui Valley, Chile

The wine which follows the Amarone-style procedure is Vina Falernia Carmenere Reserva. The current vintage available in my area is the 2015. This vintage is made from 60% of the dried on the vine fruit with the remaining 40% made up of the grapes harvested earlier. It turns out to be a lovely stand-in for the much more expensive Italian version.

The 2015 vintage is a contrast to the aggressively herbal carmeneres from the rest of the Chilean viniculture areas. By using the dried fruit that seems to have been tamped down. What remains is a deeply satisfying mixture of cherries, chocolate, and cinnamon on the palate which are all also evident on the nose.

This turned out to be just what I was looking for as it was ideal with Easter dinner. In my area it goes for $14/bottle. Which is an outstanding value if you compare it to an Amarone.

I am going to seek out more of the Vina Falernia wines as I can. There is also one other vineyard in Elqui Valley called Mayu and is run by a cousin of Sig, Olivier. If they’re all as good as this one, it is yet another of the South American regions producing quality wines at moderate prices.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Warren Zevon

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There is a deep pleasure in my ability to go deep down any rabbit hole I find because of technology. One of the triggers for this is usually a song which comes out of my iTunes library when I put it on shuffle. My latest experience came after the song “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” by Warren Zevon played through my headphones. In what would be an eerily prophetic song for Mr. Zevon when it was released in 2000; foreshadowing his battle with cancer. It would lead to his death in September 2003. That would happen days after the release of his last album “The Wind”. That album contains what I consider the companion piece to “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”; “Keep Me In your Heart”.

Mr. Zevon was part of the Southern California singer-songwriter community of the 1970’s. I first learned of him through a song written by him done by another artist; Linda Ronstadt. One of her biggest hits off her 1977 album Simple Dreams was “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”. It was my favorite song on that album. One of my more clued-in friends asked if I had heard the original version. When he played Mr. Zevon’s version it was a revelation, to me, of a new artist. I was just in time to catch on with everyone else with his second album Excitable Boy in 1978.

Mr. Zevon’s more ironic, darker themes delivered in a hard-edged folk-based style was an alternative to the pop versions his peers were releasing. That they knew he was a unique talent who needed opportunity came when close friend Jackson Browne produced and invested in Mr. Zevon’s first two albums. Mr. Browne would then take him out on tour. That was where I saw him live for the first time.

I saw him live in a much more intimate setting the second time. When I was in graduate school in Athens, Georgia in 1984 it was a time when the music scene was exploding. One of the cool things about being there was other artists would come into town to collaborate. Through a whisper stream the word would go out that so-and-so was playing with this band at one of the smaller clubs under a fictitious name. When the rumor of Warren Zevon plus REM made it to me. I closed the lab for the night and headed out to see a band called Hindu Love Gods. I was treated to a night of covers plus new songs being worked on. In this setting I saw Mr. Zevon’s love of rock music as he clearly enjoyed being on stage with the other musicians. They closed the night with “Werewolves of London” his biggest hit but it was everything prior to that which was memorable.

The final year leading up to his death was about recording a final album with all his friends. Informed by his coming mortality it could have been a mess. Instead Mr. Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Mick Fleetwood, Joe Walsh, T Bone Burnett, and Emmylou Harris joined in over the songs on the album to produce a moving musical elegy.

There are few of us who can choose how we leave this world. Mr. Zevon did it with his music. Herd to ask for more than that.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: BOOM! Studios Abbott by Saladin Ahmed

One of the best things about comics is the amazing writers who will participate in writing them. No longer seen as something less than, novelists from all genres are willing to take on the cape and spandex protagonists. One novelist who has caught my attention over the last year is Saladin Ahmed. He has been the author of a truly amazing series featuring the King of the Inhumans, Black Bolt. If you’re saying, “who?” that’s not surprising. Many of the novelists are drawn to taking a character from the shelf and giving them a new spotlight. For forty years Black Bolt has been a stiff. In Mr. Ahmed’s hands he is fascinating. Even so he is still hemmed in by the accumulated canon history of the character. As I’ve appreciated the Black Bolt Series I wondered whether he would continue. Turns out he had an original character he wanted to do, Abbott, and the first two issues have been released from BOOM! Studios.

Mr. Ahmed grep up in Detroit during the 70’s and 80’s so he decided to set Abbott in that era. The title refers to black female journalist Elena Abbott. The time period sets her apart for her skin color and her gender. One thing I like about the first two issues is the way it isn’t dwelled upon, but it isn’t ignored. We know that Abbott has more than a mystery to deal with in her life. It is essentially one of my favorite genres of urban supernatural mystery.

Saladin Ahmed

Abbott is out doing her job when she comes across a couple of mutilated bodies. It reminds her of the “unexplained” attack which killed her husband. She is still dealing with that loss because she saw something otherworldly take him. Mr. Ahmed gives Abbott personal quirks which give the reader a clue to what’s going on inside. The bodies provide her an opportunity to find some answers.

Mr. Ahmed has fully captured early 70’s Detroit. Abbott is a bit like the old Blaxploitation movies of the same era. Although the writing is better. Freed of some of the commercial restrains of corporate comics artist Sami Kivela saturates many of the panels with monochromatic hues to give a presence to the scene being portrayed.

The story is just getting ramped up only two issues in, but this has become one of my most looked forward to titles in 2018.

Now I have to go grab a copy of his fantasy series, “Throne of the Crescent Moon” to pass time between issues.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Marvel’s Optimism vs DC’s Nihilism at the Movies

I imagine over at the Warner Brothers DC offices there must be a lot of envy as another Marvel movie takes off. The latest release, Black Panther, must really sting because it took in as much money in the first weekend that the big team-up movie, Justice League, did in its entire run. I’ve been thinking about why this is so. I think I’ve figured out one part of it.

To start with I return to the comics themselves back in 1986. That was the year that DC was releasing two of the most lauded comics ever produced. They were part of the movement from comic books to graphic novels. One was “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller and the other was “Watchmen” by Alan Moore. They stood out for being different from the other titles surrounding them. One reason for that was they both had nihilistic protagonists more interested in winning than anything else. Collateral damage was just part of the job. Forget vigilante these heroes were the executioner when it was necessary. Now I adore both stories for giving that style to the comic book realm. Except it has become a pervasive infection, especially at DC. They would race to make ever darker grittier versions of their recognizable heroes. Retconning their origins if necessary. It was not a resounding creative success.

Director Zack Snyder would film an excellent version of “Watchmen” which captures much of its nihilistic charm. After that he would take over as the creative force of the DC movie universe hoping to create a similar series of films to what Marvel had done. There were expectations.

Marvel was taking a different path. During the same time as DC was trying out the darkness Marvel decided they needed a giant crossover event. Thus, was born Secret Wars which spanned 12-months from 1984-1985. The numerous different creators of all the main Marvel heroes agreed to have a universal battle where every hero would have their moments. There was lots of humor. The universe was saved with a smile and “Kapow”. Marvel would continue this lighter side of things without deciding to go all in on what their competitors were doing. Although there were some notable exceptions in series like Daredevil, for instance. For the most part there was a Marvel style which was not gritty.

When director Jon Favreau laid the first brick in the Marvel movie universe, 2008’s Iron Man, he brought with him that same humorous style. Robert Downey Jr. inhabited a hero unafraid to laugh while also throwing a punch. He looked like he was enjoying being a hero. That is what the essence of Marvel movies have been; the characters understand the responsibility while also showing a joy at having these powers.

Mr. Snyder would take the darkness and shroud the DC movies in it. For a character like Batman that has always been part of the undercurrent. For a character like Superman it was not. Yet he was turned into a killer who destroyed a city at the end of his movie. This nihilism is the glue which holds the DC universe together except for one which doesn’t; Wonder Woman. One reason is the director Patty Jenkins didn’t see her heroine as anything but noble she used humor and optimism to power it to the biggest DC universe movie to date. Inclusive, funny, and heroic instead of exclusionary, grim, and nihilistic.

Compare this to Marvel’s latest releases; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther. Three different filmmakers who stamped their movies with their perspective while also never losing the optimism which binds the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is why there is much more faith in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War which will blend 20+ heroes over the disastrous Justice League which couldn’t pull off the same trick with six.

I think nihilism only appeals to a very small slice of the moviegoing public. Mr. Snyder is an embodiment of that as a creative concept and seems unable to see the DC universe in anything but shadows. I wonder what it would look like with Ms. Jenkins in charge?

The fun optimistic world which the Marvel universe inhabits shows time and again where people want to spend two hours in a movie theatre. It is a lot more fun to feel like part of a positive universe than one which seems intent on reveling in what is bad.

Mark Behnke