Sunday, July 12, 2015

Eurovision Revision IV: Another Time, Another Place

Following the Netherlands' win in Frankfurt, the responsibilities for hosting the 1958 contest went to the Dutch, and in an era when the show was still mostly a radio event it made sense to stage the contest not at a stadium or a theatre but in a well-resourced television studio in the town of Hilversum, hub of basically all major Dutch media organisations and perhaps ironically the least famous venue this side of Millstreet. The cast of competing countries was basically the same as in 1957 - minus the UK in their only post-debut absence, with Sweden substituting and popping their Eurovision cherry - and the entries very much had a going-through-the-motions feel to them for the most part, not helped by four separate performers (previous winners Lys Assia and Corry Brokken, plus Margot Hielscher and poor Fud Leclerc) all representing their countries again. On the other hand, one of the most well-known songs to ever come out of the contest was introduced to the world in Hilversum, so who's to say whether this year's contest is truly as dull as it feels? Shall we begin?

#25. Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu (Domenico Modugno, Italy 1958, 3rd)

What is there to say about this song, better known as Volare, that has not already been said? I mean, it's one thing to win the contest. It's another to finish third but go on to be not only the only Eurovision entry to win a Grammy, but for that win to make it the first ever Song of the Year. Over sixty years, there have been so few songs to transcend the contest and become major successes in their own right - really it's just this, Congratulations, Waterloo, and Ooh Aah... Just a Little Bit, plus Riverdance - that for one of these songs to happen so early in the contest's history, in a contest (the second and last) without any songs performed in English, is remarkable. I mean, it even got performed on Quantum Leap of all places. Endlessly listenable, and if you're not throwing your arms up with Domenico at the start of the chorus there's probably something very wrong with you. Italie, DOUZE POINTS.

#26. Heel de Wereld (Corry Brokken, Netherlands 1958, tied for 9th)

It had to happen eventually. A Dutch entry I can't get wholeheartedly behind. Don't get me wrong, I really do like most of it. But every so often Corry Brokken has to break with the tempo of this slow ditty (about wanting to reveal a secret, for those of you playing along, just as Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu was about gettin' high on love) and run through about six syllables in a second just to get to the end of the line in time with the music. If the rest of the song was faster, or if the Dutch language wasn't so gloriously guttural, it could have worked. But it's not, and it isn't, so it doesn't. Pays-Bas, cinq points.

#27. Dors, Mon Amour (André Claveau, France 1958, Winner)

It may be that I'm listening to this shortly after listing to one of the true classic songs of the 1950s, but... eesh, this WON? I don't know what to say about it because it's such a blah song (its theme of being about sleeping to enjoy the future is, how shall we say, more than appropriate), relying pretty much entirely on Claveau's deep-but-not-too-deep voice to sell it. And failing. France, trois points.

#28. Un Grand Amour (Solange Berry, Luxembourg 1958, tied for 9th)

Move over, Imitation Beyonce, I have a new favourite Solange. It's not a particularly spectacular entry to Eurovision canon, but it's a good song sung well, and at this point in the contest's history that should be all you need to do well. Unfortunately, this is right around the time the visual performance is about to become important (as early as next year, it will play a huge role in deciding the winner), and we just don't have anything exciting to see here. Luxembourg, sept points.

#29. Lilla Stjärna (Alice Babs, Sweden 1958, 4th)

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. The thing with Swedish entries is that I often find myself either really digging them or being completely bored by them, and this one, in which poor Alice Babs finds herself having to act like she routinely asks objects that can't hear her for romantic advice,  finds itself wedged firmly into the latter category. And... like, it's not that it's a bad song, and I can see how they finished fourth, but I know Sweden can and will do much better. Suede, cinq points.

#30. Jeg Rev et Blad ud af Min Dagbog (Raquel Rastenni, Denmark 1958, 8th)

No, Denmark. I don't forgive you for this mediocre regret-inspired song. Especially when the big note at the end of the song winds up being the smallest of all. The era of actual performances can't come quick enough at this point. Danmark, quatre points.

#31. Ma Petite Chatte (Poor Fud Leclerc, Belgium 1958, tied for 5th)

As excellent as this generic love song is - and fast-paced swing is a very difficult thing to get right at Eurovision, as demonstrated multiple times over the years until finally Electro Velvet almost killed the genre for everybody - it does seem like Poor Fud Leclerc isn't entirely comfortable with singing it, even though he sells the heck out of the performance better than any other performer this year (yes, even more than Modugno). There's just something kind of wooden to his act that detracts from its tone, and I'm not sure that can quite be explained away by the social standards of the 1950s. Belgique, huit points.

#32. Für Zwei Groschen Musik (Margot Hielscher, West Germany 1958, 7th)

In a contest that so far has pretty much been filled with soulful funeral dirges and Volare, an upbeat piece of social commentary on the ridiculous of corporate beauty pageants that changes after the first verse into a jazzy little number about the power and importance of jukeboxes is... a bit of a departure, it must be said. But it's not an unwelcome departure, in spite of its switch and in spite of it, you know, being jazz. It's easy to see why it didn't win - it's not a particularly European song or a particularly Eurovision song and is, still, jazz - but that doesn't mean it's hateable. And bonus points for being the first song to try and do something with the staging. Allemagne de l'Ouest, sept points.

#33. Die Ganze Welt Braucht Liebe (Liane Augustin, Austria 1958, tied for 5th)

Look, it's perfectly adequate. But with the previous two songs being solidly above average, adequate isn't going to cut it right now. There are times when it will. But this isn't one of them. I don't necessarily need every song to be spectacular, but I'd like to at least realise the song has ended and looped around before the third run-through, you know? Autriche, trois points.

#34. Giorgio (Lys Assia, Switzerland 1958, 2nd)

Or as I like to think of it, "Bambi Raps In Italian". And yes, it really is that bonkers to listen to, full of overly fast lyrics and the repeated use of the words Chianti, Risotto, and Polenta, almost as if you're trying to communicate with a waiter who speaks another language without having to do the ultra-slow slurred speech thing. Or you're just Marco Pierre White. Suisse, sept points.


NEXT TIME: The 1950s come to an end. And not a moment too soon.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Eurovision Revision III: What's Another Year?

The year is 1957. Following the logical selection of Switzerland as inaugural host for this festival of peace, and with the original plan of having participants take turns hosting, there were two choices for the sequel without randomly going to a country that wasn't present in Lugano - either go to a country that was pretty recently invaded by the Nazis and deal with the uncomfortable subtext of having to invite West Germany, or stage the contest in West Germany itself and use it to show how the country had grown up in the previous decade or so. Naturally, the latter was deemed a better choice, and the contest headed to Frankfurt with the understanding that in future years winning countries would be given the honour of hosting to avoid the drama.

For the contest itself, the format was much closer to the format we know today. We're still in the "show in a TV studio" era of the contest and won't move to a concert hall until 1959 (with the move to stadium spectaculars full-time not happening until the new millennium), but this time each country only sent one song and we got to see the full voting in the interests of filling time transparency. The voting also won't change to the current format for a while, becoming the first of many changes to the contest brought about by the Swedes, but for this year the format is simple: Each country had ten jurors from outside the music industry, who each cast a single vote for their favourite song. Most votes wins. What could be simpler?

#15. Straatdeuntje (Bobbejaan Schoepen, Belgium 1957, 8th)

This one's a tough one. I think it's a perfectly fine song on its own, but... honestly, everything about it has been done significantly better elsewhere. A Dutch-language song about relaxing street music? The Dutch themselves will do it better in the 1970s. Obnoxiously catchy whistling? Thank you, Switzerland. A chorus that's basically just "la la la la la la la"? Many, many times, and it doesn't commit itself to the gimmick for long enough to make it worthwhile. The singer isn't even reality TV's best Bobby Jon. The one thing it does have, however, is that it sets into motion the tradition of Belgium alternating between French and Dutch entries at each contest they attend, one that will continue (with only one exception) until 1998. But still: adequate but not remarkable. Belgique, six points.

#16. Amours Mortes (Tant de Peine) (Danièle Dupré, Luxembourg 1957, 4th)

So I listened to this song about five minutes ago and it's already been completely forgotten, aside from the visual of the singer clearly being unsure what to do with her hands and ending up with her arms positioned awkwardly like she was some kind of a porcelain doll. Which is bad enough at the best of times, but from about thirty seconds into the video all we get is a tight shot on her head, so it's not like there's even anything to distract from how deathly dull the song is. Luxembourg, deux points.

#17. All (Patricia Bredin, United Kingdom 1957, 7th)

On the one hand, this is a surprisingly shrill entry from a country that usually at least sends decent voices, even if the stage presence and the songs themselves are now invariably awful. On the other hand, it's pretty much just a straight line from this to Electro Velvet, and at least the song is over quickly - the entire performance lasts less than two excruciating minutes. And while I'm definitely not a fan of the song, it's nice of people to realise the song is kind of terrible and to act accordingly. They won't always. Royaume-Uni, trois points.

#18. Corde della mia Chitarra (Nunzio Gallo, Italy 1957, 6th)

Clocking in at five minutes and nineteen seconds, this is the longest entry in Eurovision history... and, unfortunately, you can feel each and every tedious second. It's not even until a minute in that the acoustic guitar solo (which, despite the lyrics, is not magically playing itself) ends and the song proper begins, and by that point you're already hoping for the damn thing to be over already. It's not painfully bad, sure, but it just lasts far too fucking long. Italie, trois points.

#19. Wohin, Kleines Pony? (Bob Martin, Austria 1957, 10th)

I don't know about you, but I've always wanted to hear someone ask a pony for directions to the tune of the Married... With Children theme as performed in a spaghetti Western (a strudel Western?). I mean, I'm flummoxed that it finished last, but I'm not entirely surprised it didn't do well. There are definitely surreal moments throughout the history of Eurovision that work, but it's a technique that only seems to work for select countries. France can get away with it, because everyone expects them to think they're too good for this silly little fooferaw. Moldova can get away with it, because everybody understands they need to do whatever they can to help people find it on a map. But Austria is one of the countries where the technique never works, and it's always kind of embarrassing to see another attempt. Autriche, quatre points.

#20. Net Als Toen (Corry Brokken, Netherlands 1957, Winner)

So I know I'm genetically predisposed to love everything the Netherlands sends, but even then it's kind of astonishing just how much this song rises above the comparative chaff we've had so far in this year's contest. Brokken herself is one of the forgotten icons of Eurovision - as well as being a staple of these early contests, she's one of only two people in history to complete the "winner, host, spokesperson" triple play (and the two-decade waits between each is much more impressive than Marie N doing all three within the space of four contests) - and it's a real shame she's not remembered as well as many of the other important figures in the contest's canon. Especially with a song this good. Pays-Bas, dix points.

#21. Telefon, Telefon (Margot Hielscher, West Germany 1957, 4th)

For those of you wondering just what The Social Network Song would be like if transplanted into the early years of the contest, here you go. I kid, a little, but it's the same basic "love letter to glorious technology" concept (one which the West Germans would return to twenty years down the line) in the form of a 1950s chanson. This one has the added bonus of referencing the addition of the telephone voting to the contest, but it honestly doesn't need it. It's a good entry on its own, which is more than can be said for Poor Valentina Monetta's debut. Allemagne de l'Ouest, huit points.

#22. La Belle Amour (Paule Desjardins, France 1957, 2nd)

In the early years of Eurovision, France was basically an unstoppable force - at risk of spoiling events over half a century old, they're going to win three of the next five contests, and will only fall outside the top five once between now and 1970 - but unlike later times when countries would consistently do well (the mantle will get passed around from France to the UK, Israel, and West Germany before a brief open period that confuses everybody into endorsing Ireland's plan for world domination), there's not really anything about this ode to nature or ballrooms or whatever (it's not particularly clear) that makes it easy to see why France was about to be so successful. In this case, it isn't even that French was a literal lingua franca - with the specific countries here, the German songs were more likely to pick up the At Least I Understand It votes - so I don't know. Don't get me wrong, it's a perfectly solid entry, but it's not as good as it probably should be for a runner-up. France, sept points.

#23. Skibet Skal Sejle i Nat (Birthe Wilke & Gustav Winckler, Denmark 1957, 3rd)

Oh, hey. two singers. That presents problems here more than it does in other songs - Birthe has a Disney voice while Gustav's is almost comically deep and for the most part drowns her out when they sing lines in unison - but it's nice to get something to break up the monotony of yet another pretty young lady singing about loving where they live, and it makes sense to have two singers perform a song about one last afternoon of torrid outdoor sex before the man heads off to sea and explores life on the poop deck with his fellow sailors. Unfortunately, that's not why everyone mentions the couple. Because they share an overlong kiss at the end (spoiler?), the entry has kind of ended up with a disproportionate reputation, up to and including the Danish organisers of the 50th anniversary special having Birthe making a cameo to get kissed by Katrina minus the Waves. (I wish I was kidding.) And I just can't support that considering the song is actually kind of mediocre? Danmark, six points.

#24. L'Enfant que J'Etais (Lys Assia, Switzerland 1957, 8th)

Maybe it's just that the last four songs have been getting worse and worse, but I kind of adore this one? The annual "Look, Lys Assia is still alive! Let's interview her!" segment is pretty much my least favourite part of every year's contest, and the slow songs usually wind up in the like-but-not-love range for me, but somehow she manages to turn it out and make this work, which is especially tough since it's about growing old and she's not exactly elderly here. I'm pretty sure a decent amount of the poor result is jurors either penalising her for beating a song they liked more last year or not wanting her and Switzerland in general to win back-to-back in the first two contests, but frankly I wouldn't have wanted her to win back-to-back either. Suisse, huit points.


NEXT TIME: One of the most successful Eurovision entries ever. And two songs that beat it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Challenge Guide Update

Just a quick update - I was originally planning on releasing the first part of the updated challenge guide (which, as you'll no doubt remember from when I shoved the details in the blurb for the Amazing Race guide, is going to be a single-format with shows uploaded in stages rather than all at once) in the next week or so, but that's not going to happen.

Basically, the first batch of seasons I was planning on uploading were the civilian seasons of The Apprentice US, the first few years of Big Brother UK, and a section of The Challenge - three long-running shows I haven't really done anything with on this blog yet, and where better to start than with ABC? - but in keeping with the blog's updated subtitle (the reasons for which should go without saying), there's going to be a change of plans. I'll still be starting with some long-running shows, yes, but the line-up has changed somewhat. Instead:

  • The first third of Big Brother UK (five seasons, plus four spinoff seasons)
  • The first quarter of The Biggest Loser US (four seasons)
  • The first third of The Challenge (nine seasons)
  • The first third of Masterchef Australia (two seasons, plus two spinoff seasons)
  • All of The Mole US (five seasons)
  • The first third of Ninja Warrior Japan (eleven specials, plus two spinoff specials)
  • The first fifth of Project Runway (four seasons)
The good news is I'm about half a celebrity season away from finishing the Big Brother section, and a lot of what's left just needs to be reformatted from old drafts on my computer. The bad news is it's still a lot of work, and it's probably still going to be at least another month or so away. Apologies for the delay.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Eurovision Revision II: Love Enough for Two

Having last time discussed the entries from all seven countries competing in the first Eurovision Song Contest, today we discuss... the entries from all seven countries competing in the first Eurovision Song Contest. Confused? Let me explain.

Essentially, Eurovision is the world's longest-running reality show. And much like basically every one of the bigger modern competitive reality shows is vastly different in its first season than it is from its second season onwards, the first Eurovision was very different from the contest we know and grudgingly watch each year to see which country in Eastern Europe Scandinavia gets given the trophy by default. In addition to being the only one of the sixty contests to date without a female host or cohost, and in addition to being the only contest where voting results were not revealed, this is also the only contest where each participating country sent more than one song, mostly to help fill the broadcast at a time when broadcasting simultaneously in seven countries was prohibitively expensive and thus needed to be justified. (By the following year there were ten countries, and voting was used to fill out the remaining time instead because the thought of a Eurovision with twenty songs competing would just be nonsensical.)

And now the stage is set, on with the show.

#8. Voorgoed Voorbij (Corry Brokken, Netherlands 1956)

Going into this marathon, I was expecting a lot of these early songs to be difficult to get into, just by virtue of being the sort of music even Eurovision doesn't bother giving exposure to any more. But in spite of being a pretty standard break-up song, this doesn't feel all too different to the sort of thing France would send to a modern contest just to be faux-edgy? Of course, the fact that it's good is an easy way to tell it apart from most recent French entries, but let's not split hairs. In fact, it's good enough that Corry Brokken is one of only three artists from this contest to return in later years (along with St. Lys Assia and Poor Fud Leclerc), and the first in a long line of singers to also be found guilty of Attempted Hosting. Not for twenty more years, but still. Pays-Bas, huit points.

#9. Refrain (Lys Assia, Switzerland 1956)

So... I'm supposed to love this one, right? Because it was the first winner, and that's supposed to be important or something? I'll work on it, I swear. But right now, I kind of feel like the lyrics (an old couple remembering when they were young and carefree) don't fit with the music? It's a fine entry, sure, but the reputation it has is a little overdone considering the actual quality of the song, which is really just a piece of background music from a 1920s silent film scene showing a love interest's introduction, with some lyrics over the top that feel a little too strongly-voiced for what it is. Or to put all of this another way, it's a good winner (and we'll have some truly awful ones in later years), but it's not one of the greats. Suisse, sept points.

#10. Le Plus Beau Jour de Ma Vie (Mony Marc, Belgium 1956)

Oh, Belgium. You're not going to make this behemoth easy on me, are you? Everyone else, you know how sometimes with old music the way the notes are held in that weird way that makes the voice sound distorted like you're literally listening to them through a foam cup with a piece of string attached? That's this song in a nutshell, even before you get to the story basically being a woman explaining how seeing her husband on her wedding day was the proudest moment of her life. Which despite failing the Bechdel Test on its own somehow manages to not be the most outdated Eurovision entry about weddings containing the words "ding dong" as a key part of the lyrics, so that's a plus for it. But it's pretty much the only one. Belgique, trois points.

#11. So Geht das Jede Nacht (Freddy Quinn, West Germany 1956)

Whereas Germany's first entry in this contest was something that would make you wonder just how big Shatner was in the country, this one's a bit more of an actual song. It's still not the sort of thing that would work at Eurovision - we've seen numerous times that swing is just one of those genres that never really catches on that well within the confines of the contest (rap and Motown have both failed in the past, and it took until the final song of this year's contest for someone to actually do well after trying to bring opera to the masses), plus the lyrics are pretty damn slut-shamey - and it's not even the best swing entry the Germans have sent, but taken on its own it's not that bad. That said, I'm not judging these songs in a bubble, and all of those things combine to give it a mediocre result. I'm sure Germany will wise up in future and send us a string of truly great entries, right? Right? Allemagne de l'Ouest, quatre points.

#12. Il Est Là (Dany Dauberson, France 1956)

In recent years, it's become common for the lesser singers to be overwhelmed by their backing tracks. And certainly this started in the same way, almost as if it was a deliberate attempt to lull you into a false sense of security like Dany's psychosomatic stalker seems to be. But then it kind of turned it around and became an adequate if unremarkable entry to the Eurovision canon. Unfortunately, by the time it did it I'd already zoned out. Sorry, France! France, six points.

#13. Les Amants de Minuit (Michèle Arnaud, Luxembourg 1956)

What I Thought The Song Was Going To Be About Before I Heard It: Consoling a premature ejaculator. What The Song Is Actually About: The 1950s version of a one-night stand, involving a late-night snack that isn't that kind of eating. So... close enough, but I still like my version better. And that's really the problem here - the version of this song I had in my head was much more interesting and involving than the song actually is. Especially compared to Ne Crois Pas, it just doesn't hold up. Luxembourg, cinq points.

#14. Amami Se Vuoi (Tonina Torrielli, Italy 1956)

And so we finally wrap up the first contest with... more of the same, really. I've been splitting hairs a lot of the time trying to work out how to analyse these songs since so many of them are pretty similarly slow and meandering, but this little ditty about how love never dies (or, if you prefer, only love survives) is among the best of those entries this time around. However, being the best of a mediocre bunch only gets you so far, and as it turns out that's somewhere around the upper-middle of the best-to-worst ranking right now. Italie, sept points.


NEXT TIME: Austria. Also Denmark and the UK, but it's not like either of them ever produce notable Eurovision entries, so I don't know why I'm even mentioning them. (Also: video!)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Eurovision Revision I: Congratulations, I Have Arrived

This is an idea I've had floating around for a while and never really felt confident enough to do, but it's been far too long since I posted here with any regularity and this is a perfect way to fix that issue, so here we are. Basically, over the next however long, we'll be visiting each and every of the 1396 entries in the Eurovision Song Contest catalog and discussing them one at a time before making foregone conclusions and declaring ABBA the best and Jemini the spawn of Satan. (Except not, because I don't actually believe either of those is true, but more about them when we get there.) Along the way, we'll be giving each song the traditional score from zero to twelve points (but, as one Scandinavian host put it, "never the points nine or eleven"), and then at the end I'll reveal a comprehensive best to worst ranking of every entry ever.

But there are a few things to note before we get there: First, I'm not counting any songs that weren't performed in competition at Eurovision itself, which means among others that the songs which lost in the qualification rounds in two mid-1990s contests aren't included and we (thankfully) won't be discussing the Wombles or Riverdance. Second, while semi-final qualifiers will be reviewed in the order they were performed in the semi-final, I'm using final performances wherever possible. (I'm certainly not implying Youtube is your friend if you want to play along, but if you put "Eurovision" followed by the country and year, you should be able to find everything you'll need.) Third, the 1956 and 1964 contests no longer have viewable video footage, but it's not as if Lys Assia was doing cartwheels in a bikini while performing, so I think we'll manage. Finally, I have the lyrics and translations for every entry, but I'm still under no belief that I'm ever going to understand what's going on, and while I've heard a huge number of these songs before I'm not going to claim I've heard everything. Shall we begin?

#1. De Vogels van Holland (Jetty Paerl, Netherlands 1956)

Looking through the prism of modernity, it's easy to think that a 1950s-style Dutch ballad about birds would be monotonous and depressing. But Anouk isn't involved with this inaugural performance, so put down your noose and your razor blades for a little while, even if it's still not a toetapper. Instead, we have this peaceful and relaxing number, almost saturated with the upbeat wistfulness that infects the best Dutch entries to the point that it starts oozing from an open wound, about how birds love wet weather and are thus happier in the Netherlands than in other countries. And... like, it's great you want to use your song to make a point about how delightful your country is, but maybe don't point out the constant rain if you want people to drop by for some hash brownies? Just a thought. Pays-Bas, huit points.

#2. Das Alte Karusell (Lys Assia, Switzerland 1956)

Or, as I like to think of it, "Mary Poppins goes to Hell". The song is actually about the titular old carousel needing a bit of lube to get it working again (and don't we all), but: come on. It's Julie Andrews riding down the River Styx in a boat made from the kneecaps of her enemies. Who said Switzerland was neutral? And it's not that it's a bad song (because it's not), it's just that like said rusty carousel, it goes round and round in circles instead of taking us on a journey. And I just can't with that unless it's a peppy mid-90s dance track. Suisse, cinq points.

#3. Messieurs les Noyés de la Seine (Fud Leclerc, Belgium 1956)

With a name like Fud Leclerc I'd contemplate drowning myself in the Seine too. Wouldn't you? There's no explanation of why Belgium actually sent a song about a depressed French hobo, but at least they made it sound appropriately Parisian, and I kind of love it? It's definitely my favourite of these opening seven songs, but frankly central European music of the 1950s really isn't my thing (not least of all because we won't actually get to the songs I was alive for until entry #585, the infamous "Bandido" from 1990), so take it with a pile of salt the size of Moldova. Belgique, dix points.

#4. Im Wartesaal zum Grossen Glück (Walter Andreas Schwarz, West Germany 1956)

It's lovely to see the tradition of Germany trolling Eurovision started so early in the contest's history. That's pretty much the only reason I can see for sending a song where everything but the chorus is spoken-word and where it can't decide whether it wants to be Pink Panther or Frere Jacques. Unfortunately, the end result is that it ends up somewhere around I'm Coming Home, which I think we can all agree is one of the lesser songs in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and yet that musical is so good throughout that almost anything that can be compared to it is going to come across poorly. Plus - and this may be because this contest is audio-only, but I suspect not - Schwarz just doesn't have the gravitas of Tim Curry. Also, the lyrics make precisely zero sense even by Eurovision's lax standards for coherency, and kind of come across as though Schwarz (who also wrote it) misheard the English expression "if wishes were fishes" as "if wishes were fishers" and decided it would be good to base an entire song around. Which: no, dear. Allemagne de l'Ouest, deux points.

#5. Le Temps Perdu (Mathé Altéry, France 1956)

I listened to this song (subject: the futility of waiting for someone at night when there are no belltowers ringing to demonstrate the passage of time) an hour ago and my ears still hurt trying to figure out what to say about it. It's the sort of song where I can't tell if the performance is just offkey or if it was legitimately supposed to be so sharp you could cut diamonds with it, but either way it's an actively painful way to spend three minutes, and now that I've done it I probably never will again. France, nul points.

#6. Ne Crois Pas (Michèle Arnaud, Luxembourg 1956)

It's much more apparent in later seasons that Eurovision is a socially liberal event, but the signs are present even in this first contest. In an era where women were still treated as submissive and a decade before bra-burning was even a thing, here we have an entry entirely about how beauty fades over time. More specifically, we have an entry about how MEN'S beauty fades over time, performed with the kind of upbeat excitement you'd expect from someone finally fighting back. It's simply delightful, and if the results of this contest were ever released (they didn't start showing the voting until the following year), I wouldn't be surprised to find out this finished second. Luxembourg, dix points.

#7. Aprite la Finestre (Franca Raimondi, Italy 1956)

Sometimes, there are songs that really don't merit much analysis. This is one of them. It's a pretty unremarkable deal about using the arrival of spring to get your creative juices flowing and so forth, with the requisite spring in its step. (So to speak.) And... I got nothing else. It's fine, but it's nothing particularly inventive or exciting or even notable. Solidly middle of the road. Italie, six points.


NEXT TIME: It's all just a little bit of history repeating.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Race in the Hole

There are very few competitive reality shows that have demonstrated the longevity of The Amazing Race - indeed, to the best of my knowledge the only ones to have matched the show's twenty-six seasons are the creatively-titled The Real World spinoff The Challenge (also airing its 26th season at the time of writing), CBS stablemate Survivor (which just began its 30th), and the British version of Big Brother (33, with the caveat that over half are shortened celebrity seasons and other similar spinoffs). But where the problems with those shows are fairly easy to point out succinctly - The Challenge's recurring cast being so familiar and awful even the contempt is breeding contempt, the Big Brother UK producers valuing style over substance, and Jeff Probst - The Amazing Race has experienced a rougher fall from grace than any of them, seemingly almost out of nowhere. So the question must be asked... why has this show declined so much so suddenly?

To analyse the situation, we must first look back about halfway through the show's lifetime to the fourteenth season, one that is incredibly divisive in fandom but which the show's producers seem to inexplicably love. There were two big changes this season that affected how the show developed: firstly, the producers thought the cast was too friendly towards each other and started turning the usual "eat, sleep, and mingle" rest between racing legs into a sequestration period with food to make the contestants crankier and more antagonistic towards each other, then on a more superficial level it was the first time the show's graphics got a major overhaul. The results of these were underwhelming to say the least - the casts for this season and the next two went down as three of the most unpopular sets in the show's history, and most of the lesser graphical changes were retooled very quickly even if the most troublesome of all (the subtext behind the new logo being akin to the show calling itself bigger than Jesus) remained - but by and large what's most important here is that this also happened to be right at the point the show rather paradoxically lost its confidence and started with a whole lot of self-affirming bluster about how capital-letters-and-fingerquotes "AMAZING" it was. On top of all of this, it's the first season to actively avoid new countries (Romania gets its first visit and Switzerland gets a second, both for single episodes with extended travel sequences that mean they really don't get started until about twenty minutes in, while everywhere else is appearing for at least the third time) and the entire back half of the route is a stale copy of the very first race, plus there are huge challenge design problems with many tasks favouring cheap comedy over being classy towards local cultures, so it's fair to say it's not one of the better ones. Sure, there were certainly attempts to remedy both the casting errors and the task design in later seasons, but it seemed as if the show seemed to think the opposite of "negative" was "not negative" and thus we got several middling seasons that kind of did nothing for anybody.

Which brings us a bit closer to the present day. You see, after a particularly controversial slip in The Amazing Race 22 that managed to offend people on both sides of the Vietnam War (the show routinely uses an alternate set of race flags in Vietnam as the usual design is similar to the flag of the former South Vietnam, yet in this instance the usual race flags turned up at a downed US jet left as a monument to North Vietnam's victory in the war, although of COURSE the conservative media only took offense at the side where Real I Was Born Here Americans got angry), there was a concerted effort to revitalise the show again. And the following season was legitimately quite good, especially if you can ignore the premiere and the finale, which have been such a sticking point for so long that it would have been more shocking if they weren't. Unfortunately, those are the episodes that tend to stick in the minds of viewers, and with the second episode of the season being the next least impressive (which I'm sure has absolutely nothing to do with Chile being one of a handful of countries that keeps turning up despite it never hosting a great leg in any franchise), the season was doomed from the start even though that middle run of episodes (from Leg 3 to Leg 8, certainly, and you could make a case for including Leg 9) is genuinely the best run of episodes the show had produced since at least the opening half of season ten, if not earlier.

So how, then, do you react to viewers not getting invested in the season? Well, if you're this particular set of producers, it's only too logical to put the problems with premiere design in the too-hard basket like so many "find a clue buried on a beach" premiere tasks of yore and instead decide to make season 24 an All-Stars season featuring memorable players from prior seasons. With the previous such season steadfastly refusing to cast from the early seasons under the belief that nobody would remember them (not that the show was available on DVD or anything, or that giving people a reason to buy them would make the show more profitable), the problem should be apparent: the teams that weren't milquetoast were almost universally teams who, frankly, were assholes who made for terrible viewing. So the cast was probably never going to be perfect, but out of all of the possible combinations you could have come up with from the six seasons considered, there's basically only one or two ways the season could have had a worse cast. And we very nearly got it. The basic problem, really, was that the cast included seven teams who filled the same Big Character archetype that appeals only to a vocal Twitter minority (including three who were making their third appearance and had all well and truly worn out their welcomes by the end of their first appearances), two teams who got in because of the unusual ways in which they were booted early in their first season rather than because they were entertaining (both of whom proved to be utter funsucks), a filler team seemingly only cast because it's not an Amazing Race without a team of generic blonde women who vow to use sex appeal to get ahead, and a team who was generally received well but was still a lesser imitation of better past teams. So your odds were basically one in eleven that the season was going to turn out well, but then one half of the good team was forced out of the game before starting due to a medical emergency, forcing the show to either scrap the team entirely or give the healthy partner a new teammate with a tenuous connection to him. They did the latter, and wound up being one of the most uncomfortable teams to watch in years before they were mercifully eliminated in Leg 2. (This will be important in a moment.)

So the self-congratulatory season 24 was a bust, mostly because the recent seasons were dull and it was more of the same featuring the teams you didn't like the first time around. Naturally, the cure was... to make season 25 even more self-congratulatory? I kid, a little, but that's definitely one of the numerous big problems with the season, which succeeded in spite of its changes rather than because of them. The anniversary theme itself is a tough one because while I have no objections to doing it in theory, the way it was handled was kind of a failure. Put simply, the show also decided to finally do the island-locations theme that had been mooted by fans since at least season four (every single place visited except Morocco and the final city of Los Angeles was an island, and even the LA leg included a shipping task and a lighthouse), and having the anniversary theme on top of that meant neither shined the way they were meant to because the show spent a significant portion of the season ticking off memorable past tasks to recycle instead of capitalising on filming in places they'd probably never use otherwise, with the end result obviously being that precisely none of these recycled tasks lived up to the originals while the new tasks felt particularly uninspired, almost as if they'd been taken from a 1960s version of Wikipedia. (On behalf of the viewership, I thank the show for not referring to Berber nomads as "noble savages", but on the other hand they really should have avoided spelling Marrakech "Marrakesh" in the final task.)

There was also two other stylistic additions that didn't work and has inexplicably survived into the current season. One of them we'll save for later because Oh Yes There Will Be Ranting, but the other was having host Phil Keoghan make cameos on the course, introducing tasks while teams are running past. Sure, it was cute the first time it happened, but even as early as its second appearance it felt like a running joke that had run its course. And breaking the fourth wall and taking viewers out of the show just for a sight gag - not to mention giving some teams an advantage in knowing their positions because Phil mentions it - just isn't worth it.

In terms of the actual race itself though, there were three new twists. First is the Save, a shameless and extremely flawed attempt to seemingly answer an executive note from CBS asking why the show doesn't have something like Survivor's Hidden Immunity Idol or Big Brother's Power of Veto. And there are two incredibly obvious answers: (1) Non-elimination legs, and (2) Why don't Survivor and Big Brother have ten Emmy awards? But of course, the problem doesn't end there. The way it was handled, it could be used at any elimination up to and including Leg 9 to spare its holder. Except the problem is it couldn't be used in what was already a predetermined non-elimination leg (as we saw when the team tried to save themselves in Leg 4), meaning that for them to actually be eliminated they needed to finish last in an elimination leg, forfeit the Save, and then finish last again in another elimination leg. Not seeing why that's an issue yet? You soon will.

The second of these was the mid-race twist of having teams faced with two tasks at what the show calls a Detour and forcing them to pick a task knowing only their arbitrary titles. This one here undeniably had the most chance of succeeding out of the three twists, but even then the execution was abysmal. Pairing the twist with the two most lopsided Detours of the season, and giving those Detours lame and unhelpful titles on top of that, was an awful decision that turned what could have been an interesting study in decision-making into "don't pick whichever one of 'This' and 'That' is an hour away". I love that there was an attempt to create a mid-season twist in an era where reality shows have all but given up on the concept, and in another situation - say, season 22's choice between Tasty Puddin' and Whisky Rollin', in which the tasks (making haggis or rolling whisky barrels up cobblestone streets, because SCOTLAND) were fairly balanced and were right next to each other meaning your only decision is in whether to take the task that suggests a food-eating task - it'd work well, but here? No.

The last twist, and by far the most actually stupid because there is at least a way to justify coming up with the concept of the Save, was the decision to get rid of the elimination in the penultimate leg and have four teams in the final leg instead of the final three. A pre-finale non-elimination is perfectly fine in theory, and indeed most of the "classic seasons" had them, but this was catastrophic. Not only was the previous leg before this also a non-elimination, meaning that a season that didn't have all too much suspense to begin with gave up on limping home to a conclusion and called a taxi (no doubt earning a time penalty for not walking as specified in the clue), but the final four was cut down to the standard final three with a mid-leg elimination anyway, defeating the entire purpose. So in essence you have a Save that all but guarantees its winner a place in the final leg given the unlikely odds of finishing last twice in a specific subset of six legs, combined with removing the lid from the metaphorical pressure cooker, combined with a twist that amounted to letting a team get all the way to the finale without getting to finish the race? Beyond awful. Put simply, it's the least thought-out twist in the show's history (and I'm including the early-years non-elimination penalty that amounted to begging for money in havens of wealth such as Senegal), but it still pales in comparison to the show's attempt to embrace social media.

The show's existing social media strategy was actually quite good - one hashtag for the show, then Phil hosting a Q&A during broadcasts when he wasn't busy filming. But due to what I can only assume was more CBS meddling, the usual team relationship chyrons that appear onscreen were replaced for season 25 (and now for 26) with team hashtags ranging from the cutesy reminders of Treasure Hunters and Expedition Impossible and the other knockoffs I'm probably forgetting (#SoulSurfers) to the inane (any of the #TheSharedOccupation hashtags) to the pointless and spoilery (is there any way they would have kept #TheDatingCouple as a hashtag if the team had lasted more than two legs?). Here's the thing: It doesn't work. In fact, speaking in my official capacity as manager of Australia's national Twitter account, it actively hinders the show. Within the context of this pre-recorded show, the only way hashtags are valuable is by making the show trend, and splitting the number of tweets about the show over twelve hashtags - especially when it's just been moved from a high-rating Sunday slot to the Friday Night Death Slot and the timeslot move wasn't advertised particularly well - is a disastrous decision. And that's even before you consider the hashtags themselves don't seem to have been created with either an understanding that economy is key on Twitter - you only have 140 characters to work with, so nobody will ever use hashtags with fifteen to twenty characters on a regular basis - or that Twitter is an interactive medium. With the creators of this show also heavily involved with The Quest and its brilliant embrace of social media, it's inconceivable to think that a show like The Amazing Race that's usually pretty good at whatever it does (even if the risks don't always pan out quite as intended) is failing so spectacularly at this.

Which is, finally, how we get to the current season. Throughout the entire run of The Amazing Race, there has been only two constants: that Phil will be delightful (though even that is waning now he's turning into Kiwi Probst), and that the least entertaining, most forgettable team of the season will be a young dating couple. So, naturally, the season is made up exclusively of dating couples, five of whom are actually solo applicants the show has paired up for "the most extreme blind dates ever". Because heaven knows what we've wanted all these years is more footage of people who've barely met being unpleasant. And which teams did they use to showcase the concept of "dating couple" in a season-opening montage? A whole bunch of the most awful couples of recent years, several of whom have broken up since, plus the aforementioned #TheDatingCouple, plus a random dating couple from a decade ago that nobody could identify in a line-up. Not, say, any of the dating couples who were received positively over the years, or either of the two lesbian couples from the show's history (which is especially noteworthy in this, the first season ever without an all-female team, even moreso because a female team won last season). And if this gimmick wasn't enough to doom the show - and even the producers themselves appear to think it is, given they have openly made "at least it's not the Family Edition, right?" comparisons to the most-hated season of the show in multiple preseason interviews - giving the teams phones to take selfies of their journey certainly is. Because you know what I want to watch in the middle of a race for a million dollars? People taking selfies. (Indeed, in Episode 2, people pausing to do so led to an anticlimactic elimination when they missed their train.)

Frankly, the combination of the selfies, plus the season theme, plus the hashtag debacle makes me think all of these changes are being forced upon the show by a clueless CBS executive who wants to make the show cool for a younger market yet still thinks MTV is a music channel. Like, I'm pretty sure the "most extreme blind dates" spiel was pitched in a memo that spelled it "X-Treme" and may have also included the non-word "kewl". If the show gets another season (and it could go either way at this point), it really needs to be a back-to-basics season with no new changes or gimmicks, and most if not all of the existing ones removed. Of course change over time is inevitable, and the show is going to be completely different now than it was back when the first season was airing after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. But not only is it not that show, it's not the show it was when the forgettable dating couple from the montage was racing. It's not the show that took baby steps to recover from the season fourteen mess. It's not the show that took a hit with the Vietnam incident but had enough goodwill to survive it. It's not the show that had a renaissance just eighteen months ago. It's not even the show that I found myself falling back in love with when I was writing the challenge guide late last year. All of those shows are far better than this.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The World is Waiting for You: A Brief Obsessive Guide to The Amazing Race

Still the best/only non-Bigger-than-Jesus show logo.

Here you go. (PDF, 1.36MB.)

I was planning on waiting until next week to release this, but with recent events we totally need a pick-me-up right about now. Consider it an early Christmas/on-time Hannukah/late Ramadan present. And so, to celebrate the finale of The Amazing Race's 25th season, it's the next in my series of reality show challenge guides. It's not quite complete because there are seasons currently airing and one that's finished too recently to get done in time, but they'll all be added in later versions. (I'll also hopefully be back sometime next week with the latest in my other ongoing series of posts, analysing and criticising said 25th Amazing Race season. Because as much as a whole bunch of things worked, a whole bunch more didn't.)

Which brings me to the other big news I was hinting at (if you came here just because of the guide, feel free to skip this bit): This is the last full-show guide I'll be releasing. From here on out, I'll be releasing seasons individually and combining them into a single giant compendium, allowing me to cover smaller shows without feeling like I have to come up with a way to justify picking, like, The Quest (delightful) over Big Brother (...not delightful). And when I say "giant", I mean it: including rewriting the old guides into a consistent format, the list of shows I want to get done is currently at over 130 entries and being added to all the time. The actual format is going to be almost identical to the one used for this Amazing Race guide, partly but not entirely because after watching that much of the show I have no burning desire to ultramarathon it again for a little while, and the only non-visual change is (obviously) removing the location column.

So that's where we stand right now: with the promise of more output, even if still only occasional, but also with more reason for all of us to keep remembering this blog exists. And that can only be a good thing.