Jul 19

Root beer reviews: Bulldog

Bulldog Root Beer hits your tongue thin but slick, with a nice sweetness and a nifty bite at the end. It’s quenching and gone in a hurry.

Sampling date: July 17, 2012

Ingredients: Carbonated water, cane sugar, honey, maltodextrin, natural and artificial flavors, sodium benzoate, real vanilla, phosphoric acid, salt

Nutritional information: 12-ounce serving, 160 calories, 0 grams fat, 41 grams of sugar, 45 milligrams sodium

Bottling location: Mukilteo, Washington

Current rankings:
1) Route 66 Root Beer
2) Bulldog Root Beer

Jul 18

Root beer reviews: Route 66

With a $25 gift card to BevMo in hand, I decided to pursue a small but highly significant taste test of root beer. I bought several different brands and will be publishing reviews over the next few weeks. Here is the first:

* * *

Route 66 Root Beer has what I would call a classic non-mainstream taste – the sweet bite that you don’t get in an A&W or Mug. Goes down smoothly and unpretentiously, disappearing all too quickly.

Sampling date: July 14, 2012

Ingredients: Carbonated water, real cane sugar, caramel color, natural and artificial flavorings, quillaia, citric acid, sodium benzoate (preservative)

Nutritional information: 12-ounce serving, 160 calories, 0 grams fat, 28 grams of sugar

Bottling location: Lebanon, Missouri

Jul 10

Take me out to the movie

If Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer had been differently inspired:

Take me out to the movie
Take me out with the crowd
Buy me some popcorn and Cracker Jack
I don’t care if I ever get back
Let me root, root, root for the protagonist
If he doesn’t complete the hero’s journey it’s a shame
For it’s lights, camera, action – and cut
At the ol’ movie.

Jun 22

On ‘The Newsroom,’ ‘Louie’ and ‘Hit & Miss’

Debate over HBO’s The Newsroom which premieres Sunday, has unfortunately splintered in some pockets online into a referendum on the show’s creator Aaron Sorkin — as if you must have problems with Sorkin himself if you have problems with the show.

My audience relationship with Sorkin dates back to seeing A Few Good Men performed on stage with Michael O’Keefe in Los Angeles two decades ago, a memorable night. I was a diehard fan of Sports Night and an admirer of The West Wing, The Social Network and Moneyball. On the other hand, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a mess, highlighted by its completely unconvincing portrayal of what it kept assuring us was the greatest latenight show in the history of man. (The genius of the other latenight-themed program that premiered at the same time, 30 Rock, was that it took the opposite tack of making its show-within-a-show an embarrassing near-failure.) But you can’t win ’em all — I certainly didn’t lose respect for Sorkin because he couldn’t pull this one off.

In the first episode of The Newsroom, there are two traits that stick out. One is that there is dialogue, even by Sorkin standards, that is just preposterous. I’m not talking about the style of speech — I’m talking about the substance. Just as an example, right in the main opening scene, Jeff Daniels’ anchorman character, Will McAvoy paints a picture of America that would seem to deny that Sorkin ever heard of Joe McCarthy.  Turns out, there’s a McCarthy reference later in the episode, so there goes that theory. Straw men are not in short supply on this show.

Secondly, while the characters in Sorkin’s best work, however confident or even arrogant they might be, feel truly human, McAvoy just feels plain arrogant. Unlike some of my work colleagues, I’ve only seen the premiere, so I can’t speak to what future episodes hold. But the first episode makes McAvoy into someone whom we’re supposed to root for despite his personality flaws. That would be all well and good if he truly seemed heroic, but since the deck is stacked so heavily in his favor (and I say this as someone sympathetic to the cause), it doesn’t feel like real heroism.

All that being said, I didn’t think the premiere of The Newsroom was bad. It moves quickly despite its 75-minute length, and its aims are certainly honorable. But I thought it was flawed, and not only that, the nature of the flaws made me pretty nervous about future episodes. That’s not a referendum on Sorkin, just on the show.

* * *

You might say that Louie, in contrast to The Newsroom, is a show that works even when it’s not working. The parts that meander have their own particular fascination because of how honest they feel. The rest of the show, which premieres its third season Thursday, will blow you away.

In particular, the second episode of the upcoming season, featuring guest star Melissa Leo, will be one of the most memorable half-hours of the year — amazing to the level of last year’s “Palestinian Chicken” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The funny thing is that my favorite part of the episode isn’t the provocative second half, but rather a joke by his daughter that Louis CK shares early on.  Nevertheless, I can’t wait for people to see the whole thing.

Episodes four and five form a two-parter that is also spellbinding. The mind of Louis CK simply astounds me. The guy is flat-out funny, but he’s also, in my book, one of the deepest thinkers around.

* * *

Finally, for those of you with DirecTV, keep an eye out for Hit & Miss, which will premiere on DirecTV’s audience network July 11. The premise is ordinary enough: Chloe Sevigny plays a transgender hit person. But rather than sensationalize it, the drama does the opposite — it’s brooding, and although slowly paced, engrossing. (The teaser above jazzes things up a bit and doesn’t quite convey the show’s mood.)

The first episode has the feel of a good U.K. independent film, only rather than wrapping up the story tidily, it’s just getting started.

May 28

A tangible reason for the Dodgers’ success: defense

The Dodgers lead the majors this year in Ultimate Zone Rating, according to Fangraphs (via Baseball Musings), by a significant margin. Tony Gwynn Jr., Mark Ellis and James Loney lead the contributions.

* * *

At my Variety blog The Vote, I have a post about Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men” that, if you’ve seen the episode, you might find worth your time.

May 16

The 2012-13 TV season

Over at Variety’s On the Air blog, I’ve been offering sneak peeks at the 2012-13 TV shows being announced this week by the broadcast networks. NBC, Fox and ABC have already been covered, with a set of CBS clips coming later today and the CW Thursday.

It’s too early to make any informed judgments about the shows, but this will give you a taste.

Oh, this would probably be a good time to introduce a different blog I’m shepherding at Variety: The Vote. Its focus is the Oscars, Emmys and other entertainment industry awards. It’s part of a shift in my duties at Variety that has given me more emphasis in this area. Because I was already heavily focused in TV, the main change will be that I’ll be more involved in our Oscar and other film awards coverage than before.

Mar 31

TV one-season wonders

For Variety, I’ve written a couple of blog posts that I think are kind of fun: celebrating TV’s top series that only received one season on the air. The first post deals with the 2000s, the second with the 1990s. If I missed a show you liked, it might be because I didn’t see it, didn’t like it or that it actually ran for more than one season – but let me know what you think.

Mar 29

Here, diagonally

You’d be amazed how often I still hear that “Tiny Mighty Mos” song in my head. And I must have seen that “Stay Alive” commercial a thousand times. The line deliveries are worthy of Olivier.

Don’t even get me started on “Life” or “Connect Four.”

Mar 09

L.A.’s big free agent: LACMA’s Levitated Mass

While the import to Los Angeles of free agents such as Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano generated split opinions over their value, they were not alone, or even the most noteworthy in the county.

Landing strip for Levitated Mass, at rear of LACMA, as seen from Variety building.

Within 24 hours, the primary part of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, a 21-foot, 340-ton boulder (yes, bigger than Jonathan Broxton and Todd Coffey combined) that has been slowly working its way across Southern California, will arrive at its new home, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will hover above a 456-foot-long, 15-feet deep slot. (Information concerning its arrival can be found here; you can also follow on Twitter.) Levitated has interested me for several reasons: my ties to LACMA from having worked there from 2002-2006, my view of the museum and its landing-strip outdoor home for Leviated from the window of my current Variety office, and above all, the polarized reaction Levitated has generated.

In its initial stages, any appreciation for what Levitated might mean was drowned out by amazed if not angry cries: “LACMA is spending $10 million for a rock?” Indeed, the cost for bringing Levitated to LACMA did require eight digits worth of private fundraising, to account for the unique challenge of the oversize delivery that required removing and reinstalling traffic lights, wires and other obstacles. Surely that money could be better spent on something else.

There are two threads to that argument. The first is whether any arts spending is superfluous when your city faces hard times. From my experience at LACMA, all I can tell you is that study after study exists to show that arts spending has payoffs for the community that more than justify itself. (Not to be ignored is the question of whether funds diverted from the arts would go to an area that had even less value to society.) In addition, LACMA notes that Levitated offers Los Angeles both a near- and long-term economic benefit.

The second thread is, even if you support arts spending, whether Levitated qualifies as the right kind of arts spending. This is inherently subjective. Again, much initial reaction across the public seemed highly skeptical. However, the rapid groundswell of interest — as celebratory as an Olympic torch run — in Levitated indicates, at a minimum, that there’s a high curiosity factor. And something tells me that once it is in place at LACMA, it is going to be the kind of experience that more than fulfills its goals: to amaze and inspire.

The path through which visitors will be able to walk beneath Levitated Mass.

Rare is the piece of art, no matter how much its financial worth, that is meaningful to everyone. Everyone has seen a so-called masterpiece that leaves them cold. So it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to appreciate Levitated Mass, but despite the initial concern, this might be a free-agent gamble that pays off.

If so, this would be akin to a scouting department triumph for LACMA, though you can decide how Moneyball-like it is. Levitated might not have had the look of a top prospect or marquee free agent, but here we are, poised for its potential earthquake of a debut.