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Monday, June 30, 2008

Posted By on Mon, Jun 30, 2008 at 1:59 PM

Summertime and one's thoughts turn to water recreation. Heading for the beach? A lake, or even a river? Then stay away from cable TV and in particular, such hair-raising channels as Discovery, National Geographic and History.

The old days of nature-TV where an avuncular host would respectfully peer through the grass at one of God's sublime creatures while gently beckoning you forward to share the majesty are gone. Now, only Animals Disgorged From Hell get all the good airtime, and that includes demons of the watery deep.

Oh, and I'm not talking about sharks, that old bugbear of the seas and sweeps. Sharks -- and their spawn, Shark Week, Shark Month and so on -- have jumped the proverbial (non-lethal) shark. Hell, you can swim with sharks for fun at tourist resorts. Nope, I'm talking about heretofore unknown, undocumented or possibly covered-up threats.

That's right -- have you seen Killer Jellyfish? Or Giant Squid: Caught on Camera? Are you up on the Secret Killers of Monterey Bay? (Those, for the woefully uninformed, are "transient killer whales." As opposed to, say, a stable killer whale with a home, family and a pretty good job down at the plant.) Laugh all you want at silly-looking walruses, but you do not want a close encounter with a Toothed Titan.

And speaking of teeth, anybody near the mid-Atlantic waterways should heed Fishzilla, the go-to television freak-out about Chinese snakehead fish, who not only have nasty sharp teeth, but also "walk" on land, leap into boats uninvited, ignore traffic signals and commit who knows how many other criminal acts.

The fear-mongers over at Monster Quest cast a wide net across species but at least two episodes of the popular History Channel series probe the liquid depths for horror. "America's Loch Ness Monster" might be lurking in Lake Champlain in upstate New York. The "Giant Fish" episode tracked ... yes ... giant fish, from super-sized (but elusive) lake trout in northern Canada to a reconstructed mondo-muskie in Minnesota to the gargantuan catfish of the Amazon that eat small boys unlucky enough to stray from rural villages.

And even if somehow, all the combined brainiacs of TLC, Discovery and The Military Channel could remove all the deadly fish from our waters, there are still Monster Waves to contend with.

It almost smells like an organized conspiracy to get people just to stay indoors -- and watch more TV.

click to enlarge National Geographic's Fishzilla
National Geographic's Fishzilla

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Jun 26, 2008 at 12:20 PM

The backchannels of cable have often hosted excerpts from those crazy Japanese game shows, where contestants dress in silly costumes and tackle equally silly obstacles courses. There's some physical skill involved, but most of the programs seem to revel in simply having people fall into various muddy holes so we can laugh at them.

The longest-running is MXC (Most Extreme Challenge) on Spike, which is a hybrid show, taking the footage from a Japanese show, and dubbing in new snarky dialogue for the hosts and the contestants. Occasionally, the bon mots are hilarious -- the writers build gags out of having made-up opposing groups, such as Porn Stars vs. White House Staff -- and the structure of the 30-minute show makes it easy to fast-forward to the juicy middle parts.

Thirty minutes. Oh, if only Wipeout, one of ABC's two Japanese-game-show rip-offs, was so succinct. One hour proved deadly, especially when the two hosts -- John Anderson and John Henson -- delivered their not-very-funny jokes with all the enthusiasm of budget-vinyl-flooring salesmen. Dudes, just saying “big balls” isn't inherently funny; if you can't manage wit, at least strive for delivery.

I fast-forwarded through the first batch of contestants, and spent some time with the next qualifying round. Things picked up slightly when the contestants were made dizzy, and then had to navigate a floating course.

But the much-amped final round was a giant misfire. The obstacle course looked like a left-over amusement park ride, and was so tricked out with flashing lights, water features and pyro that you couldn't follow the action. Wipeout needs to take some Big Clues from MXC, which shrinks the competing portion into tasty little nuggets. Who wants to watch this bloated hour of repeated falls and get-back-ups and fall-agains?

As if we can't get enough of folks fallin' on their ass, ABC is following Wipeout with the reality show-game show mashup, I Survived a Japanese Game Show. Ten Americans get flown to Tokyo, and discover -- in the fakest surprise ever -- that they're competing in a Japanese game show called Majide. And per reality-show set-up, they're installed in a group home with tiny beds, a remote-controlled toilet (prompting one doofus to exclaim how much more advanced the Japanese are) and divided up into teams. I'm not sure the teams will stay intact over the series but for now it's the Yellow Penguins vs. the Green Monkeys.

And our requisite reality-show contestant from Western PA is in the house! Ben from Punxsutawney, who is also the oldest player. And I'm not sure why this wasn't mentioned on the show, but it does explain why he turned up wearing a rather incongruous top hat: Ben is Punxsutawney Phil's handler.

The Majide set looked tiny and somewhat phony, but I guess it's for real -- though the tiny studio audience of young Japanese overreacted to everything with the exaggerated enthusiasm of out-of-work actors. And, I do love that a good chunk of the show in Japanese, with subtitles. Unthinkable years ago that primetime network shows would come with subtitles, so there's been some progress among coach potatoes.

The contests -- eating food from hat, landing in a vat of flour, miming a bug-splat while dressed as a fly -- are somewhat strained, but Survived is miles better than Wipeout. Despite the window-dressing of Majide, Survived's DNA is reality show. There is proven entertainment, however low-rent, in obnoxious people living together; pitting team against team, complete with rewards and punishments; and having individual success -- the ultimate winner gets $250,000 -- also depend on team play.

I may never watch Wipeout again, but I'll be back for Survived, if only to see that mouthy Staten Island chick go down hard in a tub of wet rice.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Jun 25, 2008 at 11:35 AM

Family Feud has always been one of my favorite game shows. I watched it religiously during the 1970s. Part of its attraction, particularly in those rather dull, network-only days, was its unpredictability. Given a little pressure and a somewhat tricky question, there's no telling what somebody might blurt out. Plus, in the years before reality TV made every ordinary joe a "star," Feud was one of the few times you saw people on TV who looked and acted like folks you knew.

I cut my teeth on the glorious Richard Dawson years -- all that tongue-kissing, on-set smoking and boozy, manic behavior -- but continued to dabble through Ray Combs tenure. The ensuing hosts never engaged me, and I really missed the analog answer-board that flipped over with a resounding ding.

And now we're back with another Celebrity Family Feud, itself a pretty dusty concept: The celebrity families or groups playing for charity dates back to the Dawson era.

Much about Feud remains constant: the same game; the same patter ("One hundred people surveyed, the top six answers on the board ..."); and virtually the same set (though who doesn't miss that sampler-and-hillbilly motif of yore, meant to invoke such great domestic battles as the Hatfields vs. McCoys).

But I did note some "updates," none of them good: They've added five seconds to the bonus round. Today's "families" can include your personal assistant or the actors who play your parents on a TV show, which is kinda sad. The contestants are much heavier -- that side shot at the buzzer isn't doing a lot of this gang any favors. Also, plastic surgery has run amok! Among the alarming: Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Mrs. Ice-T, Wayne Newton and Mrs. Wayne Newton. (But that's not so bad: Part of the fun is to catch the celebs in a harsh light or saying something stupid.)

What did irk me was the double-stupid idea of both dumbing down and sexing up the questions. "What's slippery and hard to hold onto?" "What would an older woman buy her boy-toy?" "You give a baby a pacifier; what do you give a man to calm him down?"

Not only does this wink-wink stuff feel dated (and the domain of 10-year-old boys), but such questions are designed to elicit funny answers rather than test the admittedly marginal skills needed to play Feud.

The fun of the game for viewers at home is not so much giving your best answer, but guessing what 100 people surveyed might have said. In the old days, they polled the studio audience, significantly shrinking the demographic. So a question like "Where's a good place for a first date?" isn't what you think -- The Maritime Museum, the drag strip or my mom's house -- but what the average, middle-aged woman living in the L.A. suburbs would say. Being inclined to have real-life wrong answers, I loved the mind-game of having to assume another identity, slip into the brain of Judy from Riverside, in order to do well while playing along.

Needless to say, the mind of Mrs. Ice-T, the overly pneumatic Coco, who seemed to have trouble just walking, talking and finding the buzzer, is not a place I want to visit.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Jun 20, 2008 at 12:49 PM

It's almost a given that if a show has "celebrity" in the title, it will be shameless, low-rent and unlikely to feature any actual celebrities. This is a designation that has been severely downgraded, and now -- per reality TV -- includes all sorts of people you've never heard of, the very antithesis of what defines a celebrity.

Celebrity Fit Club. Celebrity Mole. Celebrity Apprentice. Celebrity Poker. Celebrity Family Feud. All packed with has-beens, never-weres and, in a burgeoning new sub-strata of "celebrity," ordinary individuals whose only claim to more TV time is that they were on a previous reality show. Call 'em double-dippin' nobodies. (Celebrity Rehab gets the one pass, here: It's the same motley crew, but part of what's landed them in treatment is their ongoing delusion that they actually are celebrities.)

Currently NBC -- that grand peacock -- has a trifecta of low-ball reality entertainment with Nashville Star, America's Got Talent and, now, Celebrity Circus. I groaned when I saw the previews, but that clip of "Bobby Brady" falling flat on his face while strapped in a big wheel tempted.

I had my DVR disgorge the first two episodes, and what I watched was truly three hours of rot.

Among the celebrities I'd never heard of: Stacy Dash, actress; Janet Evans, Olympic swimmer; and Blu Cantrell, singer. For better or worse, I can speak with some authority to Wee Man, Rachel Hunter, Chris "Bobby Brady" Knight, and I sort of recall Antonio Sabato Jr. from somewhere.

Host-slash-ringmaster Joey Fatone (huge! Get thee to Celebrity Fit Club!) bops around the phoniest set, where about 200 spectators pretend to be amazed at the overly choreographed acts. The oohs, ahhs, shrieks and gasps of the crowd are all piped in, and without much care. Hear the crowd roar and clap wildly, but see them sitting there impassively, hands on lap.

I didn't quite get the background to the challenge, but it seems each celeb has had 8 weeks of training and has to learn several basic circus acts, some involving a good bit of physical strength (even as they're roped up) and coordination.

But it was hard to care -- who are these people, and if their performances are so good, why is the applause so phony? Plus, if you buy into it, Celebrity Circus is self-defeating: If anybody can walk in off the street, and become a circus star in two months, than, by extension, what is the attraction of seeing any circus performers?

Of marginal interest were Sabato's chest (which drew raves from all three judges); Blu Cantrell's hissy fit, with its "I'll show you!" tantrum to rival any Idol wannabe tossed from auditions; Evans' ungainly trapeze act, which looked like a Molly Shannon skit.; and waaaaaay-gay, lisping judge Louie Spence (whoever he is), who is in serious danger of death by fabuuuuuuuuuulous.

At one point during the second episode, I realized that I was watching 50-year-old Knight flirt with a girl in a bikini, while wearing top hat that was on fire, as "Good Vibrations" played, and thought: Holy moley, this is a trainwreck! Then, Knight's crotch exploded.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Jun 19, 2008 at 1:25 PM

I've derived plenty of dark amusement from the dispute over whether to put an electronic billboard on Grant Street. But perhaps the grimmest chuckle came when Lamar Advertising, the company trying to construct the billboard, filed a lawsuit against five city councilors who filed suit to stop it, among them Bill Peduto and Patrick Dowd. 

One allegation in the lawsuit insisted that the five

"developed a plot, under the auspices of their elected office, to try to have said permit revoked. Said plot included, but was not limited to, the interrogation of City Officials … , the requesting of certain privileged and non-privileged records …, and the attempt to continue their public relations campaign.”

The truth is that, between them, Dowd and Peduto probably couldn't agree on a conspiracy to brew a pot of coffee. 

The latest proof of the chasm between the two is the ongoing debate over the fate of Schenley High School. Recently Peduto made waves by insisting that the Pittsburgh Public Schools find some way to avoid closing the asbestos-plagued structure.

But today Dowd, a former school board member, issued a letter which called out his fellow councilors -- including Peduto -- for helping to exacerbate the disrict's financial problems. Problems which school officials say require the building's closure.

Dowd's letter notes some of the fisal challenges that the district has faced in recent years ... and makes special mention of the fact that the city has raided school district coffers to balance its own books.

"[I]f we all aspire to be honest brokers," the letter concludes, "Council should consider how the City could contribute positively rather than negatively to the deep underlying financial issues, as well as come to terms with the difficult choices we all face."

Behind this high-minded rhetoric is a pointed political charge. The city began appropriating some of the school district's earned-income tax revenue as part of a bailout organized under the Act 47 financial recovery plan. And nobody on council supported Act 47 more strongly than ... Bill Peduto. The same Bill Peduto who has called for the district to find some means of trying to keep Schenley open. Whether Dowd intends it or not, it's not hard to see that as a bit of a shot across Peduto's bow.

 "Council needs to be honest about it's role in shaping the school district's financial situation," Dowd tells City Paper. "And that history from the district's perspective may not be positive. It's not as simple as everybody thinks, and if we're going to talk about alternatives, we have them."

In any case, it's a dicey question for Peduto and his supporters. The authors of the esteemed Burgh Report, for example, have been supportive of efforts to save Schenley ... but the site also seems to regard a vote for Act 47 as an acid test of one's ability to lead. Dowd's letter, though, raises an important point: If council wanted to lead on this issue, it could be providing a lot more than nonbinding resolutions and advice.

But whichever way you come down on that question, one thing is clear: Lamar shouldn't lose any sleep over a conspiracy on the fifth floor of the City County Building. 

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Jun 18, 2008 at 3:32 PM

There's much to dislike about this bloated show: the endless filler, its pretentions to being anything other than a freak show, the increasingly tedious judges and its patently phony "audition process."

I was off to a rocky start when this season opened with an update on season two's winner: Who's that? I watched the first two seasons religiously, but have no recall for the winners. It's the glorious losers I still hold dear: the 10-foot Russian drag queen in a sparkly jock strap who cried; the utterly breathtakingly mystifying quick-change pair; and, of course, Boy Shakira.

It's why I watch -- because imbedded in the 90-minute mess are nuggets of pure entertainment. For me, they break down into three groups: surprise, respect and power to the people.

But first the parts I hate: doddering old dears who can't sing or dance but get cooed over (this year's model straight from the Lakeland County Dinner Theater's production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane); fake bookings, like the terrible Tom Jones impersonator; PG-13 strippers; and overly cute kids. Really, parents will pimp their just-turned-4-year-old out to this show? Shouldn't you be this-high before committing to a new career as a cheesy Las Vegas act?

Now, for the good parts:

Surprise: I didn't see that "Bad Girls" trombone-contortionist thing coming! Not worth the million-dollar prize but it earned honest laughs.

Respect: Some acts you gotta root for because they represent so much hard work. The fiddlin' hip-hoppers; ditto all those fast-stepping, hyper-coordinated dance/gymnast/flexy teams. Practice, practice, practice. One minute is about my limit on that stuff, but then again, I do like to see one truly great minute.

Power to the People: Hand's down my favorite acts on the show are the ones that start in boos and end in cheers. The producers, the judges, the set-up -- all that is phony, but the studio audience is a reliable barometer, and when some act makes it through the early boos to win over the roiling mob, that's impressive. Naturally, it speaks well of the performer, but also, let's give props to the howling crowd: They can change their mind.

Last night's clear winner in the boos-to-whoos category was the baby-faced teen-age boy baton twirler. Even after the sympathetic tease reel that talked about all the abuse he'd taken for his as-yet-unidentified talent (gay slurs went unspoken, but easily assumed), the audience greeted his entrance -- sparkly T-shirt and batons -- with derisive hooting and laughter. The game kid twirled, and at the end of his act, the audience literally leapt to their feet in wild cheers and cries of "Vegas, Vegas!" Hell yeah, America's got talent ... or something!

Much love was also shed for the show's closer, the weepy, super-sized opera singer. Like everybody in the audience, I don't know squat about opera, but if it sounds like something we all might have heard in a movie, it's good enough. Truth is, who could hear? The Maestro of Missouri was drowned out with cheers throughout. To me, the dude seemed genuinely touched by the reaction, and thus the show ended on the proverbial high note.

And speaking of The People, I gotta include host Jerry Springer in here. This is a prefect gig for him; he's our Everyman, our conduit to performers. His supportive, humane embracing of the odd and deluded and the ordinary-but-talented is right in Springer's wheelhouse, and he's a zillion times better than Regis Philbin who openly held his nose through season one.

My shame award: The Slippery Kittens burlesque act who weren't that good, but when you shake your titties, you're gonna get votes. But they get the shame award for announcing that their goal was to play for our troops overseas. Drop your drawers, ladies, but don't gild the lily.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Posted By on Tue, Jun 17, 2008 at 1:53 PM

Tonight's performance by Mark Kozelek of the Red House Painters at Diesel is being postponed, said promoter Jon Rinaldo in an e-mail, "due to Mark being ill." The show is being rescheduled for Wed., Aug. 20 at the same venue. For more information, visit the Joker Productions website. Hope you feel better, Mark!

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Posted By on Tue, Jun 17, 2008 at 1:18 PM

I used to think this show -- a search for the best interior designers-slash-bubbly TV host -- was dreadfully dull, until Bravo laid its Top Design turd.

I suffered through that -- and all those big white boxes the contestants re-filled with crap from the Design Center -- and now I grudgingly admit that for all its flaws, at least Design Star shakes it up a bit.

Episode 1 churned through auditions, and allowed unctuous host Clive Pearse to debut his slimmer form. Kudos, I guess, but he still has that big Ricky Gervais head and that snooty manner. (Dig this: According to his HGTV bio, his hobby is helping with Linda Blair's animal-welfare group.)

For reasons unknown to all except perhaps the hardworking marketing team at HGTV, this year's competition -- the third – takes place in Nashville ... not exactly the first town I think of for design. Unless it's unbridled new-money interiors, like that demented honky-tonk mansion that John Rich supposedly lived in on Gone Country.

Our lucky contestants wind up on the shores of some lake, freaking out by a pile a lumber, nine beds and a budget of $100,000. "Seven days to build your home," chortles Clive. I've already guessed this is a ruse, but that would be an awesome challenge. None of them are homebuilders, and yet there they are arguing over whether there should be a second floor. It would have been like one of those Three Stooges houses, where turning on the tap causes windows to open.

But alas, Clive comes back with a party barge and floats them to their "real" home, a run-of-the-mill mini-mansion. ("I wrote a hit country song, then bought this house at Thingabob Lake out in the county.") And so, to their first real challenge: doing over a couple rooms.

From the hyper-queen Michael ("It's official: I'm amazing!"), we get one interesting color and ... a pool table?! (Fun to play, but forever tacky.) The two gals Stephanie and Jennifer buy this crazy split-log table, and then proceed to paint it. Say what?! And at judges' panel, Tracee gets all snippy and causes a flood of tears from half the contestants.

Scottie gets sent home for Sears catalog circa 1977 bedroom. Oh, the orange, the brown, the humanity!

Initially, I was disappointed there wasn't the requisite way-out-there kookster among the contestants, but perhaps I can make do with the copious weeping. On reality TV, that goes with everything.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Posted By on Mon, Jun 16, 2008 at 1:59 PM

The corner of Stanwix and Liberty overflowed last night with festival-goers eager to get an earful of '70s glam icons The New York Dolls, in town as part of this year's Three Rivers Arts Festival. The Dolls' raucous set was a mixture of tunes from their heyday, plenty of cuts from their 2006 reunion album, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This and some odds 'n' sods, including an iffy cover of "Piece of My Heart," made famous by Janis Joplin.

The harsh and indistinct sound quality at the show was a drawback, and made it hard to tell how good or bad the Dolls' performance was -- though they and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves. As the Dolls played the triumphant "Happiness" toward the end of their set, I slipped off down Liberty Avenue; as soon as I rounded the corner, the sound seemed to improve drastically and even get louder. Strange but true.

Opening the show was local band Takeover U.K., currently promoting their debut EP on Rykodisc, It's All Happening. The band attacked the short garage-pop songs, bringing a barbed intensity to what seemed otherwise fairly standard retro-rock. For some reason, the Leonard Cohen album title New Skin for the Old Ceremony popped
into my head, and summed up their set for me; I guess that makes the Dolls' set "old skin for the old ceremony." Indeed.

In some respects, watching the crowd was more interesting than watching the bands onstage -- especially the shock of seeing some pasty '80s Night refugees and the cast of Dee's Café in broad daylight -- but that's kind of what these things are for. Eat a funnel cake; chit-chat with your friends; gawk; see a band play. Repeat.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Jun 12, 2008 at 2:48 PM

So, to fill the summer doldrums, Nashville Star has been bumped up to the big leagues -- NBC, on Monday nights -- for its fifth season. And, did I mention that part of the prize is a shameless piece of cross-promotion? The winner sings at the Olympics, broadcast, naturally, on NBC.

Anyhow, landing on Nashville Star -- and even winning -- is a career crapshoot: Miranda Lambert's done OK, but you'd have to be a dedicated county-fair-goer to keep up with the rest. And just like American Idol, the best entertainment is often with the also-rans.

The two-hour premiere killed 30 minutes with creepy Billy Ray Cyrus celebrating America, its armed forces and the teary auditions. (Cyrus' streaky hair and plastic face freak me out. Not to mention his manic stage delivery which shifts between wooden and overly enthusiastic.)

We got our three judges seated: crooner and rodeo wife, Jewel; country caricature John Rich; and songwriter Jeffrey Steele. "Jeffrey Steele" is this close to a porn name, and it's as fake as the dude's SoCal blond locks. His surf-bum/weekend-biker/oily Richard Branson vibe is also weirding me out, as is his tendency to show support for singers by making "touchdowns" with his arms during their performances. Also, in the negative column: He's written too many Rascal Flatts songs.

On the upside, I like that the judges were universally free to criticize -- none of that Paula-only-makes-nice stuff -- and inexplicably, each had their guitar with them.

We get off to a bad singing start with a group rendition of "Life Is a Highway," which, for my money, is a pop-rock song, and doesn't get anymore country when 13 people sing it at once.

The lucky 13 were the proverbial mixed-bag: a black guy, a Latino dude, a full-figured gal, an emo guy with purple hair; some were way young, others were way old. There was less diversity in how they sounded, since contemporary country has the grim task of flattening out everything into a bland pop-rock tune with splash of steel guitar.

Way out on a limb was the trio Third Town (worst name ever!), who had great harmonies, but did a jokey version of "Elvira" that would have brought down the house 30 years ago on HeeHaw. They likely won't last the month.

Also probably in trouble: Alyson, the Reba-ish gal, who put a 1980s sequins-and-tight-fittin'-jeans spin on "Suds in the Bucket"; Tommy the sailorman; and Justin, the male model who sang "Drops of Jupiter" (he's cool modeling underwear, so maybe the Janice Dickinson show will take him in). I wouldn't bet the farm on the teen-girl duo, Laura and Sophie, or the teen-girl trio Pearl Heart. Nice vocals, sweet smiles but no sparkle or stage gifts. Come back in five years.

My early favorite is Gabe Garcia, who has a great old-school country voice (and that's how I roll). Picking a Strait classic was a no-brainer, but I like to see him wrap those resonant tones around less obvious song choices.

The mono-named Coffey should do well: He's good-looking, has a nice sound and country music loves to congratulate itself on its few black voices. (Truth is, there are decades of real-life C&W tradition and cross-over among African Americans and Hispanics, but little of it makes the golden zone seemingly reserved for the white-bread stars.)

I also like Melissa, owner of a big body and a bigger voice: She was comfortable in both. She took on Bonnie Raitt's signature tune, "People Are Talking," and triumphed.

Typically, my top three are the underdogs, at least when matched against how Nashville stardom works: two minorities and an older, overweight woman. We'll just see how out of step I am once America starts phoning in.

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  • Carolyn Wenning: Realm(s)

    @ BoxHeart Gallery

    Tuesdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sundays, 1-5 p.m. Continues through Nov. 22