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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Jun 11, 2008 at 1:56 PM

If they didn't cast high-strung contestants in reality shows, what would we talk about?

A lot of spoons clattered to the floor last week when Lisa made it to the Final Three on Top Chef. OK, so Antonia undercooked the beans (who hasn't?), but Lisa's been on the chopping block, it seems, every week. Moreover, Lisa has the worst, bad-attitude body language when up before judges' panel, and surely that pissy-ness isn't going to be rewarded.

It's obviously a battle between Richard and Stephanie, so if the third position is moot, why not let Antonia have it? Methinks that the producers know Lisa brings better TV, i.e. conflict. The second batch of cutlery you heard dropping was Lisa's unwarranted attack on Richard and Stephanie because they didn't congratulate her fast enough.

My prediction for tonight's winner: Stephanie. She's won a lot of challenges, and I'm sure the show wants to out a women in the winner's seat, finally.

Over at the Next Food Network Star, the Dallas Diva chilled while Nipa became a problem child. She was late to the first challenge, got territorial about her style of food in a group challenge, and finally, threw a full-on hissy fit during the judges' session.

She had the chutzpah to come back (or the producers made her), and the judges tossed viewers plenty of red meat to howl over when they didn't can that petulant brat. It's all groovy for this TV show, but she'd never get hired for a real show -- imagine pulling a number like that on a job interview. Still, we out in TV-land gobble up the mock outrage. Bring us more!

By the way, the food-quiz challenge stumped me badly; I only got one answer right, the one about pumpernickel bread.

For the cooking challenge, once again the teams turned out some pretty rough-looking food. Yikes, this is an audition for a TV cooking show – it may all taste divine but they've got to get those plating skills ramped up, and fast.

Over on Hell's Kitchen, the producers brought in some Real Housewives of Beverley Hills to spice up the kitchen after last week's departure of Manic Matt. There was hope of chaos when one of the high-heeled bras minced in carrying her toy dog, but the challenge was stupid: The HK chefs had to teach these silly women how to cook a lobster and pasta dish, and the one closest to Ramsay's original recipe won.

Really, it just tested whether these women who claimed not to cook or even having used a knife before could do it. And for their troubles, they got a set of Ramsay-styled cookware to take home, where I'm sure Rosaria, or Lupe, or whomever ultimately feeds them, will be thrilled.

In the end, the "black Gordon Ramsay" was sent packing, and non-stop girls' locker-room bitch-fest between Christina, Cory and Jen continues. Curiously, still in the mix: Petrozza. Not one of them seems competent enough to run a hot-dog stand, but I guess that's Ramsay's problem.

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Posted By on Mon, Jun 9, 2008 at 7:24 PM

In a move that notably failed to cause the pillars of power to tremble, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl vetoed a campaign-finance reform measure today.

Ravenstahl’s move will likely kill the bill, which would have limited the amount contributors could donate to candidates for local office. But somehow, I can’t get too upset. It’s what we all expected, for starters. And there are plenty of thoughtful reasons to be wary of contribution limits anyway.

Arguably the best argument -- advanced by skeptics in a story I wrote early this year -- is that in politics, money is like water: It’s going to find a way around whatever dam you set up. And the current system of influence-peddling has the advantage of being completely blatant, and thus easier to monitor.

So a politician could oppose this reform in good faith.

Predictably, however, Ravenstahl chose not to. He took the low road instead, even though the high road would have gotten him there just as quickly.

Ravenstahl's veto message notes that the reform’s sponsor, councilor Bill Peduto, once received a $50,000 campaign contribution from William Benter, who Ravenstahl describes as "a wealthy private citizen whose business specializes in outsourcing work to Asia." Ravenstahl then asks us to imagine a world in which instead of being content with making scads of money running a medical-transcription business, Benter

decided to seek higher office, running on an anti-labor platform and self-financing the entire campaign. Under the current bill, the labor community, whose funds are raised at the small dollar level from working men and women, and distributed through PACs, would be forced to find 50 PACs to contribute at the maximum levels proscribed by this bill to match the wealthy, anti-labor candidate.

But before you let your fears run away with you, ask yourself: Why would someone like Benter -- this alleged exploiter of the global economy -- be content running for a post in local government? There is, after all, a dearth of millionaires on council today. (Which is maybe too bad -- at least the rich can afford to buy their own mink coats, unlike some former councilors we could mention.) The explanation for that is simple: One way you get to be a millionaire in the first place, presumably, is by being able to do a little math.

Look at it from a millionaire's point of view. As a city councilor, Bill Peduto barely makes much more in a year than Benter contributed to his campaign. So for a rich guy, it makes more economic sense to purchase a legislator than it does to replace him. And that's the problem -- purchasing legislators -- that campaign-finance reform addresses.

So Ravenstahl has used a problem that doesn’t exist -- wealthy capitalists running for local office -- to avoid dealing with a problem that does: wealthy capitalists purchasing local officeholders. And by substituting a fake problem for a real one, Ravenstahl can pretend that perpetuating the status quo will help working people.

What's funny, though, is that he could have done all that without making things personal. Maybe the most interesting question about his veto is … why use it to attack Peduto?

Last week, Peduto took himself out of the running for the 2009 mayor’s race. He's the one local politician Ravenstahl shouldn’t feel threatened by today.

And while lots of us think Peduto is a good guy and a skilled legislator, there was a notable dearth of teeth-gnashing when he decided not to run next year. The reason isn’t just his abortive 2007 effort: There's a general sense that many of the things that make Peduto such a bad campaigner -- his inability to gladhand and so on -- are the flipside of the qualities that made many people support him in the first place.

But Ravenstahl keeps trying to make this into a schoolyard fight -- bullying a guy who's already walked away. And in the process, he does a better job making Peduto look like a serious contender than Peduto himself does.

A more confident mayor wouldn't have called Peduto out. He would have pointed to the rise of Swift-boat like 527s on the federal level, and argued that we don't problems like that in Pittsburgh. And he would have stopped there.

Instead, Ravenstahl stuck it to somebody who just turned his back on the fight. And you can't help wondering why.

The political explanation is that Ravenstahl is already laying the groundwork to help someone challenge Peduto for his council seat in 2009. The psychological explanation is that beating up opponents is an easy way to feel like you’re succeeding. Sometimes, you get the feeling that advancing an agenda isn't good enough for Ravenstahl's crew. They need to shove it down someone's throat, too … even if sometimes (as in the Lamar billboard fiasco) that risks jeopardizing the initiative itself.

Either way, though, the big campaign money is going to roll in for awhile. Maybe Ravenstahl could spend some of it on some Dale Carnegie courses. Someday, mayor, you may wish you had.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Jun 6, 2008 at 3:54 PM

I'll admit, my interest in local '80s Night events dropped to about zero after taking a bottle to the skull at one of the last dance extravaganzas at the now-defunct Upstage in Oakland. The impact must've jarred something loose in there -- perhaps the something that makes people want to hear "Come On, Eileen" each and every Thursday night. But those who still jones for it have had no lack of options since the Upstage's demise, with similar nights cropping up around town.

Last night in Lawrenceville, for example, the Thursday time-warp started out at Arsenal Lanes, where from 9 p.m. to midnight $8 gets you all-you-can-bowl with DJ Swank Cat (a.k.a. Corey LeChat of The Gothees and other local groups) spinning '80s hits and oddities. Throughout the evening, LeChat obligingly took requests from bowlers, sometimes dropping in oddball covers and even Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" ("Yes, that really was from the '80s," he assured afterward).

At midnight, the lanes closed, and it was down the hatch and down the block to dingy dive Belvedere's, where the weekly Neon '80s-themed dance party was already well under weigh in the bar's cavernous back room. With DJ Hates You presiding, the crowd had a younger, scruffier feel than the Upstage in its heyday (I mean, would you dress up to go to Belvie's!?) which the DJ seemed to acknowledge by dropping a punk mini-set towards the end of the night, prompting a half-hearted mini-mosh by a few dancers.

Reasonably good time all around, even if Belvedere's often feels like being in a giant ashtray -- once you stomp out a butt of your own on the floor, at least it's sorta your ashtray.


Musings on avian mortality and some shows at Gooski's.

Posted By on Fri, Jun 6, 2008 at 10:33 AM

The other day when I was out for a run I came across a dead grackle in the middle of the sidewalk. Dead birds seem pretty ominous, so I wondered what it was foreboding. Turns out it was probably this: a band called Grackles, and a band called Dead Bird, playing together, at Gooski's on Saturday night. They're opening for the Working Poor, and I'm not sure how that fits into my brief instance of prescience, unless of course I was the allegorical figure for that band name, which of course is possible.

Regardless, the Working Poor are always a treat, as Alan Lewandowski -- despite, or perhaps because of, the always-sloppy drunken celebrations that are his shows with WP and his other band Anita Fix -- is one of the finest outsider songwriters in town, and possibly beyond. It strikes me that, while he labors away at his clever wordplay and weirdo stage shows (mostly with the latter band), rarely leaving town to tour, he's building a body of work that'll likely someday be "discovered" by someone outside of town, and they'll rip us all to shreds for having kept him to ourselves.

And speaking of the Goosk, a band I wrote up about a year ago, Oxford Collapse, is back for more, appearing at the Polish Hill rock bar on Tuesday night (June 10). Work nights are a drag for good rock shows, but it promises to be a good time, with a few Centipede Eest side projects playing. Gangwish (Sam Pace) and Dark Lingo (Nick Falwell and Sandy Patton) open, along with a rumored short set by Plastic Idea, the brand-new band featuring Centipede bassist Caulen Kress along with local rock dudes Eli Kasan, Stacy Mackin and Taichi Nakatani. Should start around 9 (I certainly hope).


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Jun 5, 2008 at 1:49 PM

So models should be 17 and 95 pounds? Well, most do, but there is some work out there for women who are otherwise mature and better padded. Aging boomers want to keep shopping and need relatable, but attractive people to pitch them osteoporosis drugs, retirement homes or stylish outdoor wear.

But is there a market for a next Top Model-style reality show that pits 10 hopeful wannabe models, age 35 and up? Maybe, but what kind of start is it when such a series debuts at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday?

That's when She's Got the Look kicked off on TVLand. (Yes, they do play that dreadful Roxette song, and a mess of other early '80s faves, presumable to make older viewers feel connected to their youth.) The show's regular slot seems to be 10 p.m. on Wednesdays, but it also probably repeats endlessly throughout the week.

Former top model Kim Alexis hosts this search for "next great model over 25" – and she couldn't be more wooden or lacking in personality. The judges are a livelier bunch: former hot model Beverley Johnson; Robert Verdi, a celeb stylist and bitchy queen; and Sean Patterson, of the Wilhelmina modeling agency. (Hardcore fashion-reality-TV-istas will remember Patterson as one of the cold-eyed meanies on VH1's model show, The Agency.)

Episode one was standard fare: We see the hopefuls audition for the judges, and collect these keeper lines from the panel: "I'd go shopping with you but you're not a model"; "with all due respect, are your boobs real?"; and "you have a tiny marshmallow head." Also paraded for your amusement, the seriously deluded, who don't see missing a front tooth or being 4'9" and chubby as an impediment to a professional modeling career. Surprisingly, the judges passed up on the tranny model -- a move they'll likely regret when the highly competitive and happy-to-exploit Trya Banks books one for her next Top Model show.

Twenty winners fly to New York where they take a few head and body shots, and the judges winnow it down to 10. In fairness, it seems an interesting mix, with a wide variety of looks and ethnicities. So far I'm rooting for Sharon, who is 63 and genuinely looks it, but also radiates a stunning beauty. (Another gal cried when the judges accused her of being too perfect; what a business.)

My favorite moment from judging was a contestant who excused her lame-looking photos by explaining: "I'm not comfortable in front of the camera." And you'll make a great model because ....

In the next episode, the women move into the requisite too-small townhouse, and hopefully, start the personality conflicts: We've got some Southern dames, a tattooed lesbian with probable anger issues, weepy moms and a couple of exotic foreigners. For the sake of entertainment, let's hope "mature" simply refers to their age.

And another thing: these gals may be blessed by good genes, but the producers can't get this crew to the Makeover Episode soon enough!

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Posted By on Tue, Jun 3, 2008 at 2:42 PM

Summer's here, as evidence by the sudden blossoming of B- and C-grade reality shows. (Who among us can't wait for Celebrity Circus or I Survived a Japanese Game Show?) Among the returning "favorites" is The Mole, a show that should be more fun than it is.

But because the better shows have packed up for the season and the warmer months demand less thought, we tune in anyway.

Mole Season Five gets off to a poor start with its new yawner of a host, John Kelley, formerly of Extra. (During season 37 of The Mole, we'll be telling our grandkids how President Anderson Cooper used to host this show.) Right off the bat, Kelley mangles some Spanish names -- we're diggin' for mole, for some reason, in Chile.

We meet our 12 contestants (ohmigod, one of them is the mole!), the usual assortment of Reality Players: a handful of indistinguishable sorts, with a few easily identifiable characters to help us start caring -- old lady, jolly chubster, diva bitch. The first episode also heavily pimps Marci the Mom and Paul the Blue-Collar Loudmouth. My eye is caught by Kristen who is tall, beautiful, blonde, "a natural athlete" and a neuroscientist. (Add it up, and it equals: the fifth Cylon.)

A zip-line stunt over a waterfall is less scary than it first appears (and hence, less entertaining), though Big Craig muffs the challenge and ends up with El Gigante Wedgie for his troubles. Keeper line from this segment came from Alex, listed as a "musician": "As a performer, I'm good on my feet."

After some fake drama involving who sleeps in the cabin, we're off to challenge No. 2, a scavenger hunt in which our woefully dumb-ass players search a beach for items that a noted castaway would have had in 1704. Frankly, I'm torn between thinking that the producers rig this segment so viewers at home feel super-smart, or that the contestants really are stupid enough to think Victrolas and blue jeans were18th-century consumer items. Things to ponder in my Mole Journal.

The last part of the show is the tedious "Who is the Mole?" quiz and results. This is where I think the show misses opportunities. One, what's the point of showing us the quiz when we can't possible "play along at home"? So many questions rely on you having been there or having processed info over time. Thus, two: Why not construct the show better so that we really do get clues? Mostly, The Mole excels in delivering obvious red herrings. Give us real clues -- the old Ellery Queen Mysteries show used to do this: You knew as much as the detective; could you put it together? And three -- for the love of ground-dwelling, half-blind mammals, can you speed up the Execution?! Don't show us everybody's test scores in slow-motion -- just tell us who's going home.

Well, I can only hope once the back-biting begins in earnest, The Mole will pick up a bit. At the very least, fewer contestants means shorter executions. And I'll leave you with this awesome malapropism from Blue-Collar Paul about Marci's potential to be the Mole: "I'm heads and tails on her."

click to enlarge Mole-master: John Kelley
Mole-master: John Kelley

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