"Idol": The guys keep soaring

I've always liked the women on "American Idol." That may be due to my sexuality (hetero) or some other personal quirk. Whatever the reason, it's an ongoing thing; twice in the finals, I was rooting for the female (Katharine McPhee, Crystal Bowersox) who lost to a guy.

So this wasn't an easy conclusion for me: This year, the guys totally and completely dominate "Idol."

The women were good again tonight, but with one exception -- the magnificent Pia Toscano -- none could match the sheer brilliance of Jacob Lusk or James Durbin ... or the near-brilliance of Casey Abrams and Stefano Langone. Here are a few comments and predictions.

1) Abrams does a great scream. Still, when he sings "I'm gonna lose my mind," I don't immediately dismiss the possibility.

2) Haley Reinhart has, apparently, discovered her legs. For the second straight show, she wore short shorts; it was an excellent style choice. (Or maybe that's just that hetero thing doing the talking.)

3) Langone was on ideal turf in Motown night. Soul music -- from Jackie Wilson to the Motown stars, led by Smokey Robinson -- has always celebrated the high tenor voice. That's similar to the Italian tenor style that Langone does so well.

4) Then again, Jacob Lusk and James Durbin also hit the high notes beautifully, so they soared tonight. Things were much harder on Scotty McCreery, who had to take a Stevie Wonder song way, way down. The judges thougth he was great; I thought he was good.

5) That leaves Paul McDonald as the only guy I just don't get. I have no idea why he keeps getting the votes.

6) My prediction? It's complicated by the fact that Naima Adedapo had an exceptionally good night and Lauren Alaina had an OK one; even when she's bad, voters don't put her in the bottom. So my prediction for the bottom three goes like this: Thia Megia (partly hindered by being the second singer in a two-hour show, way too long before voting begins) ... and Haley Reinhart (despite the good growls and great fashion choice) ... and McDonald (as the first guy in the bottom; it has to happen sometime). Megia -- a good singer, competing with greatness -- will go home. 



Liz: Good actress, great movies

It's easy to focus on the character quirks of Elizabeth Taylor, who died today of heart failure at 79. She was, apparently, a good and decent person (one of the first in Hollywood to champion AIDS victims) and a bizarre person.

Still, let's focus on something else: She became a good actress who was in some truly great movies. Proof of that will come April 10, when Turner Classic Movies has an all-day Liz-athon.

TCM has just annonced its line-up; look over the list and you'll see some remarkable movie moments. Some of these ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," for instance) are great movies; some ("Virginia Woolf," for instance, capture Taylor at the top of her acting skills. All mark an impressive career.

Here's a complete schedule of TCM’s April 10 memorial tribute
to Elizabeth Taylor (all times Eastern):
6 a.m. – Lassie Come Home
(1943), with Roddy McDowall and Edmund Gwenn; directed by Fred M. Wilcox.
7:30 a.m. – National Velvet (1944), with Mickey Rooney, Anne
Revere and Angela Lansbury; directed by Clarence Brown.
10 a.m. – Conspirator (1952),
with Robert Taylor and Robert Flemyng; directed by Victor Saville.
11:30 a.m. – Father of the Bride (1950), with Spencer Tracy,
Billie Burke, Joan Bennett and Don Taylor; directed by Vincente Minnelli.
1:15 p.m. – Father’s Little Dividend (1951), with
Spencer Tracy, Billie Burke, Joan Bennett and Don Taylor; directed by Vincente
2:45 p.m. – Raintree County
(1957), with Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor and
Agnes Moorehead; directed by Edward Dmytryk.
6 p.m. – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), with Paul Newman
and Burl Ives; directed by Richard Brooks.
8 p.m. – Butterfield 8 (1960),
with Laurence Harvey and Eddie Fisher; directed by Daniel Mann.
10 p.m. – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966),
with Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis; directed by Mike Nichols.
12:30 a.m. – Giant (1956), with James Dean and Rock Hudson;
directed by George Stevens.
4 a.m. – Ivanhoe (1952), with Robert Taylor and Joan
Fontaine; directed by Richard Thorpe.

Good news: "Onion News Network" and "Southland" will return

For cable viewers, two pieces of good news arrived today: "Onion News Network" and "Southland" have both been renewed.

These shows have nothing in common except that they are different from most and are well-made. Details include:

-- "Onion News Network" currently has reruns at 10 p.m. Fridays on IFC (Independent Film Channel); for that matter, it has lots of reruns ... this Friday (March 25), they go from 7:30-10:30 p.m. This is a pseudo-newscast, with the terse wit of the Onion pseudo-newspaper. Now it's been renewed for 16 episodes. It returns in October -- the same time that IFC has the six-episode second season of another excellent show, David Cross' "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret."

-- "Southland" is a cop show done with a quiet sense of character. TNT has renewed it for 10 episodes -- which is a lot when you consider that the show has totaled only 23 episodes in three seasons.

When I interviewed the "Southland" stars, prior to the season finale, they were moderately optimistic they'd be back. Here's the story, in the version I sent to papers at the time:


In the stop-and-go life of “Southland,”
there's a thin line between a season-finale and a death sentence.

This cop show has needed three seasons
to reach 23 episodes – a one-year load for most series. And as that
23rd one airs Tuesday -- (that was a few weeks ago) -- no one is positive there will be
any more.

“I think the show is getting picked
up,” said Michael Cutlitz, one of the show's two main stars. “I
think it's a matter of how many (episodes).”

What if he's wrong and Tuesday's
episode is the last? “I would just say we (made the) series that we
set out to produce,” he said. “And TNT has given us the
opportunity to do that, unflinchingly.”

That's clear in Tuesday's episode,
which works both ways. It would make a decent series finale, wrapping
up key plot lines; or it could propel “Southland” to survival …

NBC aired seven episodes in the spring
of 2009, giving them the old “ER” slot. It then put the show on
its fall schedule, but gave it a tough slot (8 p.m. Fridays), because
Jay Leno had all the 10 p.m. ones. And then it changed its mind,
airing none of the six new episodes it had paid for.

That's when TNT stepped in. It showed
those six episodes last spring, then had 10 more this year.

It did it with a lower budget that may
actually make this a better show. Instead of doing a scene over and
over, “Southland” has several cameras – often hand-held ones –
working simultaneously.

“We don't run down the street 12
times …. Usually, we run down it once or twice,” said Ben
McKenzie, who stars with Cudlitz.

In his old days as the “O.C.” star,
fight scenes were carefully planned. “Every fight I've ever been in
in my own personal life is not choreographed,” McKenzie said.

So for the the big fight in the season-finale, he
and the guest villain – an actor and stunt man who also happens to
be a mixed-martial-arts fighter (“in real life, he would kick my
butt”) – simply improvised. “It's messy,” McKenzie said. “And
that's the way a lot of fights are – messy.”

The result seems both raw and
realistic. So do the show's character issues.

McKenzie plays Ben Sherman, just
starting out as a street cop; Tuesday's episode follows his last day
as a rookie. Cudlitz plays John Cooper, his no-nonsense training

“You have two guys who couldn't be
more different on the face of it, but are actually more similar than
either of them realize,” McKenzie said.

Both are idealists, but Cooper hides
that under a pragmatic surface: Afraid of getting desk duty, he
refuses to report his bad back; instead, he has a mountain of pain
pills, only some of them prescribed.

He's a decent guy, if misguided. Now
he's heading toward a turning point as something – maybe the
season, maybe the series – ends.





"Idol" hint: When growing up, it's all about location

For a childhood, as for real estate, the key can be simple: Location, location, location.

Karen Rodriguez might have been ignored elsewhere. Instead, she grew up in New York, amid opportunities, scholarships and LaGuardia High School, made famous in the "Fame" movies and TV shows.

Rodriguez was voted out of "American Idol" Thursday, finishing 12th (see previous blogs), but made a strong impression. Here's the story I sent to papers, after a group interview today:


Karen Rodriguez is getting used to
being the one who's different.

She was the American on a Puerto Rican
TV show, the Latina on “American Idol.” Now – newly ousted from
“Idol” – she'll continue her bilingual approach.

“This is what I grew up singing,”
she said. “I learned Spanish first, then English. (I want) people
to know a Latin-American crossover artist is coming your way soon.”

Her life has swirled with cultures and
countries. Her mother is from Peru, her father from the Dominican
Republic; she was born in Miami, but soon moved to New York.

Her family often needed government
support, she said, but her mother – who had wanted to be a singer –
still gave her help. “Anything she had, she would give to me so I
would look good or sing well.”

Rodriguez was in kindergarten when she
got her first music scholarship. Other scholarships would take her to
Italy for a month and to the Berklee College of Music, in Boston.

More important, perhaps, is the fact
that LaGuardia High School is a public arts school in New York City.
“That school is amazing,” Rodriguez said. “It's the 'Fame'
school ... and it's free.”

She starred there in “West Side
Story,” as Maria. “It was my first big show, in front of 3,000

Rodriguez was still a teen-ager, the
youngest finalist, when she competed in “Objetivo Fame,” on
Puerto Rican television. There, she said, she was criticized for
being too American in her approach; she finished seventh. On “Idol,”
by comparison, she drew the most praise when singing in Spanish.

Her mother gets credit for that,
Rodriguez said. “She wanted all her (three) children to be fluent
in Spanish …. I know the words, I've lived them, I connect to them.
Selena was a big influence on me.”

That leads to two ironic twists:

– Selena didn't know the words at
first. She was a Spanish-language star before learning the language.

– One of the judges this year was
Jennifer Lopez, who played the late singer in the 1997 “Selena”
movie. “To get to sing to her every week was incredible,” said
Rodriguez, who turns 22 on Tuesday.

She reached the top 24 by singing
Selena's “No Me Queda Mas” and the top 13 by inserting Spanish
verses in Mariah Carey's “Hero.” The next two weeks, however,
were lighter on the Spanish – first Selena's “I Could Fall in
Love,” then Taylor Dayne's “Love Will Lead You Back”; viewers
plunked her into the bottom three both times and put her last this

Rodriguez returned to “Hero” when
trying to get the judges to save her. It had to be unanimous,
however, and fell short. “I know (Lopez) would have saved me,”
she said. “She told me so.”





"Idol": Sometimes, just ignore the judges

A couple years ago, Paula Abdul told Scott MacIntyre he should skip the piano sometime and just stand and sing.

It was a reminder of a prime rule of "Idol" survival: Sometimes, you just have to ignore the judges.

(profiled in the previous blog) mostly ignored them; he needed that
piano to stay in his comfort zone. This year, Karen Rodriguez sort of
followed a suggestion; she promptly became the second person voted out this

It was hinted that she didn't always need to rely on her
ability to flow between English and Spanish. This week, she sang almost
entirely in English; that was part of a bad night in general -- bland song ("Love Will Lead You Back"), bad hair (piled up, Marge Simpson-style, and little Spanish.

Sure, it's nice to show variety. Each week, however, you're judged on only one song; you have to make that your best ... even if it means repeating yourself from week to week.

Rodriguez was wrong when she said there had never been a Latina finalist. In 2008, Hispanics made up three of the final four and five of the final 12, including Latinas Syesha Mercado and Ramiele Malubay. Still, she was right when she said it's the Spanish singing that makes her stand out.

her attempt at being saved by the judges toniht, she reverted to "Hero" --
lots of Spanish, lots of English, lots of emotion. If she had stuck with
that kind of song on Wednesday, she wouldn't have been voted out. Her
bi-lingual brilliance is what makes her stand out; her passionate
delivery of ballads is what gets people to the phone.

A few other thoughts:

After flubbing last week, I almost got this one nailed perfectly. I
predicted Rodriguez, Naima Adedapo and Thia Megia in the bottom three,
with Rodriguez voted out. That was all correct, except that Haley
Reinhart was there, not Megia.

2) Reinhart, incidentally, looked
spectacular tonight. Orange top, black short-shorts, her usually curly
hair and wide smile. Spectacular.

3) If she had worn that same outfit Wednesday, she wouldn't have been in the bottom three. Guys get a vote, you know.

4) I don't think anyone has looked that good since Haley Scarnato, in 2007.

5) Now that I recall it, Scarnato was also wearing short-shorts at the time. Maybe there was a connection.

It's entirely possible that I've spent too much time talking about how
Haley Reinhart looked. I'd better quickly mention that Stefano Langone
looked fine, too.

7) The basic notion lately has been simple: For
two straight years, "Idol" had bland winners. It needs a comeback ...
and will get one with this sensational group. Still, I have to admit
this: I thought tonight's new song from Lee DeWyze, last year's winner,
was terrific. He gave it a gruff, Springsteen-y touch. Maybe he wasn't
as bad a choice as I thought.

8) Then again, I still wish Crystal Bowersox had won.

That was in what judges had said would be a big year for women.
Instead, Bowersox was the only female in the final five. Things could be
more extreme this time: In the first two weeks, there hasn't even been a
guy in the bottom three.

10) More by mid-afternoon Friday, after I
do a group interview with Karen Rodriguez ... a gifted singer who
should stick to what makes her special.