Monday, October 30, 2006

The Game: Moment of Truth

One of the biggest and strangest figures in hip-hop is heading for a crucial moment of truth when The Game's Doctor's Advocate finally hits shelves on November 14. Can The Game survive without 50 Cent's song writing skills and catchy hooks? Is it true that Dr. Dre is no longer involved in the album? And, last but not least, can The Game actually rap? I mean, at all?

Before getting into these questions, lets set up the recent back story. Pretty much everyone knows that The Game was originally signed to Shady/Aftermath as a part of G-Unit. After his debut album The Documentary went multi-platinum and seemed to establish The Game and G-Unit as a synergistic force to be reckoned with, things almost immediately went to crap. 50 Cent grew upset with what he felt to be The Game's disloyal behavior (for not backing him on various industry beefs) and then for the fact that The Game was taking all the credit for his megahits like "Westside Story" and "How We Do," despite the fact that 50 wrote and performed the hooks on those songs.

Words were exchanged and then shots were fired (outside of Hot 97 in New York) and things escalated rapidly as 50 kicked The Game out of G-Unit. Shortly thereafter, the two made up at an unbelievably corny press conference. The truce was about as legitimate as the peace between the Five Families in The Godfather and just days later, there were reports that The Game was dissing 50 and G-Unit during live shows, which prompted 50 to make industry-related threats (namely that The Game would never have another hit). The Game then went on stage during New York's Summer Jam concert and launched what amounted to all-out war with his "G-Unot" campaign.

About 1,900 diss tracks followed, most notably The Game's "300 Bars," a 15-minute tour de force that served to transform him as a rapper almost over night.

But you probably know most of that. It's not a secret that the feud between The Game and G-Unit persists, nor is it terribly interesting at this point. Of far greater intrigue is the role that Dr. Dre plays in all of this. Considering that Dre signed both 50 (via Eminem) and The Game, there is no doubt that he was stuck in the middle of all this. People have been watching and waiting and asking and wondering where he comes down on dispute. And for months, it has been assumed (mostly because The Game has asserted it) that Dre would be a major part of The Game's second album. Now, with the release date looming, it seems the opposite is true. No Dr. Dre.

My best guess is that after 50 and Game had that ridiculous makeup press conference, Dre told them both to end it right there and then, but that The Game just kept on going. This blatant disobedience probably irked Dre on a personal level, but more importantly, necessitated the moving of Game from Interscope (where he would be contractually obligated to release the album under the G-Unit imprint) to sister label Geffin.

All of this has added up to The Game being somewhat set adrift. He still appears to have had an enormous production budget for the new album, so don't shed too many tears for him, but there is no denying that the deck was stacked against him to some degree. No 50 Cent hooks and no Dre beats creates a pretty big deficit.

However, it also creates a pretty big opportunity. Because if The Game can repeat anything close to the success of The Documentary (critically and commercially), he will be doing it on his own.

You see, The Game's debut album was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was the biggest West Coast album in years and sold millions of copies while momentarily holding off the South's complete takeover of Hip-Hop. On the other hand, the album was the ultimate conundrum. Here you had a rapper that most critics agreed couldn't really rap all that well, sitting on a potentially classic album. How was that possible? The answer seemed to be: an album can become a classic in spite of the artist, rather than because of the artist ... provided you put enough money into production. The Documentary was laden with ridiculous beats from the very finest producers in the industry. It was sleek and well-crafted and it felt expensive and glitzy, the same way that a film like "Mission Impossible: 3" feels expensive and glitzy. The commercial and critical success enjoyed by The Documentary was the latest and greatest statement that hip-hop control had moved from the preeminent rappers (aided by Jay-Z's then retirement) to the super producers. Dr. Dre, Just Blaze, Kanye West, Mannie Fresh, Lil' Jon ... these are the people pushing gold and platinum albums now, and they are doing it from behind the boards instead of from behind the mic.

To say that The Documentary was a classic is a bit of a stretch, but to say that it was one of the most intriguing albums in years is not. And this all goes back to the fact that The Game wasn't all that great rapping on it. He was clumsy at times, he got upstaged by an already-lazy and commercial 50 Cent on the tracks they shared, and his lyrics were average at best in all but a few instances. Once 50 booted him out of G-Unit and thereby compromised The Game's relationships with Dr. Dre and Eminem, there were immediate doubts about the viability of The Game as an artist. After all, not only did 50 Cent do most of the heavy lifting on The Game's best tracks from The Documentary, The Game himself is an incredibly destructive person, currently trying to keep pace with Mel Gibson for inflammatory DUI arrests.

In short, what we had in the wake of The Game/50 Cent split was an artist who thought he was much better than he was, who was getting into heaps of trouble, and who apparently no longer had Dr. Dre in his corner. Suffice to say, more than a few people were looking ahead to The Doctor's Advocate with a certain amount of skepticism.

Then, the craziest things started to happen. First, The Game put out the aforementioned "300 Bars," which was one of the most shocking diss tracks of all time. Not because of the content, but because the artist blew the roof off of his previous ceiling. Honestly, it sounded like a different guy was rapping ... almost as if West Coast upstart and Game-sound-a-like (same raspy voice and halting delivery) Glasses Malone had subbed in for him. Then came a variety of mixtape tracks hinting at a new and improved Game. Then, finally, the proof that The Game had come into his own as a rapper arrived when he released "One Blood" over the summer.

A relentless Junior Reed Sample produced by Black Wall Street's Reefa, the beat on "One Blood" afforded The Game the opportunity to spit and snarl the same vicious lines he's been hammering out every day in his G-Unit disses, but to do it on a cohesive song. "One Blood" also mitigated one of The Game's biggest weakness by just doing away with a chorus altogether and rolling the sample over a few bars before letting Chuck Taylor get back to his relentless ways. The result was a pretty tremendous song, and taken in conjunction with some of the finer mixtape efforts, it gave rise to the possibility that The Game simply made himself into a good rapper. Practice makes perfect and you've gotta want it and all that. He literally spent every single day rapping and it shows.

In many ways, "One Blood" embodies everything about The Game at this stage in his career. It has the markings of a Dr. Dre track (including a half-dozen shout outs to Dre in the intro), but since Dr. Dre has seemingly abandoned The Game over his protege's refusal to stop beefing with 50 Cent, The Game simply got together with one of his cronies - Reefa - and they hammered the beat out themselves. It has the aggressive tone of all those mixtape tracks he's released in the past six months. It goes from dissing other rappers to claiming he's not dissing rappers, all within the same 16 bars, which seems to reflect his bizarre, almost bipolar persona. It has no hook. It features excessive, almost comical name-dropping. Everything about The Game is right here in this song.

Throw in "Let's Ride (Strip Club)", a typical Scott Storch club banger and you can already get a sense that The Game has the makings of a real album. Maybe even something on par with The Documentary. And since he's doing it all by himself this time, that would have to rank as one of the biggest upsets of the year.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Checking in on Jay-Z's Kingdom Come

Another track from Jay-Z's highly anticipated coming-out-of-retirement album Kingdom Come leaked yesterday, bringing us up to three total. Given that The Black Album featured 13 songs (not counting the Just Blaze-produced intro), we're almost a quarter of the way into this thing.

Which means now might be a good time to take stock in what we have.

The first song to leak was the title track, a Just Blaze number that brazenly samples from Rick James' "Super Freak." This in and of itself is a major story, considering that one of the biggest rap-pop hits of all time, MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" sampled the same track. In addition to making Hammer millions of dollars that he would infamously lose in the blink of an eye, that song also became a blight on hip-hop - the kind of derivative, sellout music that submerged the artistic and cultural implications of rap in favor of a stack of cash. In other words, producing a song that sounds anything like "U Can't Touch This" would be tantamount to career suicide.

Yet Blaze pulls it off, obscuring the loop enough to make it sound like something else entirely. The most interesting thing about this beat is that the super producer just did it for fun, experimenting to see if there was a way to make one of the most recognizable songs in pop music sound new and unique. When he stumbled upon something that he felt worked, he put it on his MySpace page as the background music. Within hours, the word had spread and his page was generating thousands of hits. Another highly respected producer, ?uestlove of The Roots, learned of Blaze's feat and made arrangements for the track to find its way into Jay-Z's hands.

Which is where Hova comes in. The song (and album) title apparently come from a Superman comic book. The thinking here is that hip-hop is in need of saving and Jay-Z is the superhero to do it. With lines like "up in the office you might know him as Clark, but just when you thought the whole world fell apart, take off the blazer and loosen up the tie, then step into the booth, Superman is alive," the "Presidential MC" is definitely taking the superhero role to heart. He also makes a reference to being "Peter Parker" and "Bruce Wayne" and tells us that when we need him to "just throw our Roc signs in the air." The chorus builds on this by saying that he's the "King of New York" but that his reign extends beyond New York: "Not only NYC, I'm hip-hop's savior, so after this flow you might owe me a favor."

The song has all the components to be a monster. The now-legendary Blaze flip of "Super Freak," the comic book imagery, the superhero comparisons, and the simple fact that it is the first track off of Jay-Z's new album. It all adds up to something pretty special. You can imagine how disappointing it is then, that "Kingdom Come" is ultimately an average song.

For all the technical skill that Blaze displayed in devising the track, it doesn't sound big and expensive like so many lead singles need to in this day and age. It doesn't really have club appeal, but it's not a street burner either. To be honest, it comes across as a little boring. And while Jay-Z's lyrics are colorful and fun, they are a far cry from his best. Even setting aside the fact that Jay-Z is at his very best when telling stories of his life ("D'Evils," "Where I'm From," "Moment of Clarity"), this isn't Hova at his boastful best. It's like his heart isn't in it.

The worst news? "Kingdom Come" is by far the best track of the trio.

The second song to leak was "Show Me What You Got," the track that is everywhere right now. You might have seen it at halftime of the Bears-Cardinals game on Monday Night Football, but if you missed it then, you've probably seen the video (staring Danica Patrick) on MTV or the Budweiser commercial version. The song is supposed to harken back to Public Enemy's "Show Em Watcha Got" and it features the horns from that very track. The problem? They are the same horns used on the Wreckx 'N Effects abomination "Rump Shaker." Suffice to say, this isn't one of Just Blaze's best creations.

As for the lyrics on "Show Me What You Got," they feel rushed and all too familiar. Jay-Z makes multiple reference to being the Michael Jordan of rap ("In the zone like the homie 2-3" and "I am the Mike Jordan of recording") then discusses women and his latest favorite champagne (something called Ace of Spades). It's not what I'd call original material. Everything feels washed out and recycled and frankly, it just isn't very good.

The latest leaked track is called "Lost Ones" and is produced by Dr. Dre. It borrows the chorus from Lauren Hill's old track dissing Wyclef and in this one, Jay-Z discusses the unraveling of the relationships surrounding Rocafella Records, the death of his nephew, and his breakup with Beyonce. On paper, it sounded like it could be one for the books. Instead, it is one for the trash can. The best way to describe it is with one word: Lazy. I haven't heard Jay throw this many poor versus on a song since The Blueprint 2 when he embraced his Jigga Man side and had Timbaland produce half the tracks. Even Dre's beat is lazy; just a piano loop that you can hear on half of the "heartfelt" rap songs from the late 90's.

Anyway, we've heard a quarter of the album that is supposed to "save hip-hop" and so far it isn't much to get excited about. I had to go back and listen to Reasonable Doubt just to get the taste out of my mouth.

Here's to hoping that the rest of the album gets a lot better. Of course, even if it doesn't, it is still Jay-Z, so it will better than pretty much anything else out there.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Hip-Hop Regional Report: The Mid-Atlantic's Rising Stars

Welcome to the second edition of the "Hip Hop Regional Report." This week I am continuing to look at the "Next" rappers in hip-hop. The artists from various cities, boroughs, ports, and provinces around the county that appear to be on the verge of breaking through to stardom. Last week the focus was on up-and-coming New York City rappers. This time around the spotlight shines on a region that is an underrated rising power in hip-hop: the Mid-Atlantic states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland (including D.C., of course).

Mid-Atlantic Region.

Primary Challenger - Serius Jones. There really isn't a surefire hit coming out of the region, but there are some terrific sleeper prospects. For the lead position, I'll go with the guy doing his best Saigon impression. Much like "Sai-gitty" has super producer Just Blaze behind him, Jones is working almost exclusively with Needlz, another red hot producer. Jones, a native of Engelwood, New Jersey, gained some modicum of fame last year when he won the Fight Klub freestyle competition with a devastating assortment of punch lines. He's known for being extremely clever and humorous, but is able to temper that with some strong reality-based songs. He sounds a bit like Mysonne, a flash-in-the-pan that signed with Violator back in the late '90's. Here's to hoping that things work out a little better for Jones. Perhaps a better comparison is to Rhymefest, the Chicago product that manages to mix brag raps, humor, and social consciousness with relative ease. I personally am rooting for J-One-S based solely on the fact that he penned a pretty hilarious article for titled "The Anatomy of a Sucker Emcee." Plus, he put out one of the better mix tapes in the last few years with King Me.

Listen to: "Up Top," "Serius," "Grind Mode," and "Life in the City."

Secondary Challenger - Bossman. Baltimore still doesn't have a national face in the hip-hop industry despite the fact that fabulous HBO show The Wire is referenced in just about every other rap song these days. That could change if Bossman is able to carry over the success of his local club hits like "Hand Clap" and "Oh: The B-More Anthem" onto his major label debut with Virgin, which is expected to come out next year. Bossman hails from Northeast "Bodymore, Murderland" and is one of the rare emcees that can change his style for virtually any beat (although Baltimore club music purists might argue that Bossman's slowed-down tracks are cheating a bit on that front). Don't be surprised if Bossman becomes a huge star. Of course, don't be surprised if he disappears into obscurity (like fellow Baltimore rappers Comp and B. Rich) either. It's not easy trying to put an entire city on the map. (See: just about everyone on this list.)

Listen to: "Hand Clap," "A-Yo," "Feet," and "Oh."

Darkhorse - Wiz Khalifa. Bossman and Wiz Khalifa are really pretty interchangeable, but we'll call Khalifa the darkhorse of the two because of the fact that he's from Pittsburgh, which is an even more remote hip-hop outpost than Baltimore. If anyone emerges out of the Steel City to become a national force in hip-hop, that will probably rank as a major upset. That said, this guy just oozes talent. Only 18-years old, he already has the right monicker ("Prince of the City"), the proper nickname for his home state ("Pistolvania"), and one of the better mixtapes to come out in the last two years (appropriately combining the two in the title, "Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania"). He sounds a little like Cam'ron but with more bite and already comes across as a polished rapper with years of experience. He has a real knack for rhyming multiple words in the same bar and is one of the best I've heard at the sharp, staccato style of rhyming in complex bursts ("I got a hot rhyme, yours cool, not mine, 1-900 only time he got a hot line"). Throw in some of the talented producers coming out of Pittsburgh right now (DJ Huggy, Juliano, and Nicolay) and the pieces might be in place for a star to emerge from a previously untapped landscape.

Listen to: "Lay Em Down," "Damn Thing," "Thrown," and "Pittsburgh Sound."

Others to Watch - Nickelus F, G.A.G.E., Tabi Bonney, and Wale!. In my opinion, the Mid-Atlantic area of the country is producing some of the most talented artists out there - it is just a matter of whether they get the right platform to make people take notice. Hopefully the fact that Jive is finally releasing The Clipse's (hailing from Virginia Beach) second album, Hall Hath No Fury will generate some buzz for the entire region.

Nickelus F is pure underground at this point, but the Richmond, Virginia native has arguably the best flow on this list. He sounds a lot like Saigon but might actually be a better rapper. Here's to hoping he can land a major label deal at some point. For now, head over to his MySpace page for some terrific tracks from him and his Da Burglars crew.

G.A.G.E. already has the major label part down, as he signed with Dr. Dre and Aftermath in 2005. The Philadelphia emcee is currently working on his debut album The Soundtrack To My Life right now and is getting beats from the likes of Dre, Focus, Hi-Tek, and Scott Storch. The question, as it is with all Aftermath rappers, is whether this album will ever see the light of day. If there was any reason to believe the debut was actually coming anytime soon, G.A.G.E. would have been at the top of the entire Mid-Atlantic list.

Tabi Bonney is less "up-and-coming" and more "underground" as he already has two LP's out, but emergence on a big stage is still a possibility. The D.C. artist is known for his Andre 3000-like obsession with fashion (he has is own clothing line called Bonney Runway), Q-Tip sound, and eclectic Kanye West-type song arrangements. With the general movement in hip-hop away from the "thug" aesthetic and into more artistic, alternative styles (Lupe Fiasco being a headliner of this movement, joining the likes of Pharrell and Kanye), Bonney could be the kind of artist that major labels are looking for.

Wale! is trying to do what has been impossible until now - fuse traditional hip-hop with the authentic local go-go music that has been king in Washington D.C. for years. If you check out songs like "1 Thing About a Playa" and "Dig Dug" you see that he might be on to something.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Week Two of the "New TV Show Power Rankings"

It is time for Week Two of the "New TV Shows Power Rankings," which can't happen soon enough, with so many of the decent new shows in danger of being cancelled at any moment.

If you've ever wondered why it is hard for a new studio show to make it in this day and age, look no further than the carnage from last Tuesday night. The brilliant Friday Night Lights again had a horrible showing in its 8:00 time slot, because it was going up against ratings monster Dancing With the Stars. Meanwhile, as predicted in this space last week, a rerun of CSI at 9:00 managed to bring in more viewers than the recently cancelled Smith had in its first three weeks.

Whether these new shows just aren't visible enough, whether we as a nation are too lazy to tune in to anything new, or whether we all just love watching Emmitt Smith and Mario Lopez dance that much, it seems obvious that the populous' obsession with reality television isn't going away. So sad.

Therefore, what follows is a an edition of the "Power Rankings" that focuses heavily on ratings performance, because, unfortunately, that is all the the networks care about and the only thing that will keep these shows around.

The Top 10

1. Heroes (Last week: 2). We already have a shift at the top. Both Drew (my TV expert brother and silent partner on this column) and I still like Studio 60 more than any other new show, but the sheer success of Heroes - coupled with the fact that it doesn't suck - puts it at the top of the heap. There is good news abounding for NBC's hit new show. It is pulling in solid ratings, a full first season has been ordered by the network, and last week's episode ("One Giant Leap") was one of the better shows of the fall season up to this point. Our only complaint with Heroes so far is that the Flying Male Nurse is getting the most airtime but is the least compelling character. (How many times have we seen "Peter" trying to talk to his older brother about flying? 100?) He will probably wind up being the key to the whole mystery, but for now, we are simply getting a heavy dose of a mediocre actor who whines a lot. On the other hand we have a crazy Japanese guy, an indestructible cheerleader (who somehow is always wearing her cheerleading outfit), a mysterious single-name villain who can't be killed (at least not by bullets), and Ali Larter trying to act. That is more than enough to keep us watching.

2. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (1). Last week might have been Studio 60's best episode yet, as the possibility of copyright infringement really brought some tension to the set and showed how complex a live show can be. The genius of Sorkin's dramas is that he puts all of these fast-talking, somewhat ridiculous characters in truly intriguing settings. The "blood and guts" of a sports news broadcast (Sports Night), the White House, and now a sketch comedy show ... that is interesting stuff. Not only that, but Sorkin's "talk as they walk" writing style works better here than either of his previous shows, because this one is set in Hollywood, where people actually do interact in this way. Of course, despite all of the praise we are heaping on Studio 60, it still drops a spot in the rankings. Why? Because the ratings suck and it is probably going to get cancelled. We finally get a smart show that respects its audience enough to avoid writing to the lowest common denominator and no one is watching it. Which is what always seems to happen when people challenge the notion that the audience isn't smart enough to follow a "real" show. Next time you get upset that network television churns out formulaic, dumbed-down comedies like Two and a Half Men just know that we have no one to blame but ourselves. If we don't tune in to the good stuff, how can we expect people to keep trying to make it?

3. Jericho(4). These rankings are a mighty perverse instrument. Jericho seems to be getting worse, but it's stock is going up. Why? Because, like Heroes, the show just got a phone call from the network (in this case CBS) ordering a full 22 episodes for the first season. Now, don't get us wrong, unlike some people out there, we don't harbor any ill will for Jericho. The show features a decent enough premise, some mystery (the "Hawkins" character is certainly up to something secretive), and is just entertaining enough to keep you from falling asleep on your couch, which means that it is better than pretty much any new show from Fox or any new sitcom, from any network. That said, Jericho doesn't challenge the viewer and it doesn't feature any dynamic characters that will capture your attention once the dust/radioactive rain settles (read: The Lost Factor).

4. Ugly Betty.(8) The highest riser of the week, Ugly Betty has a lot going for it. For starters, it became the third new show to get an order for a full season. It is also battling Survivor for the 8:00 time slot on Thursday nights. Anytime a "real" show detracts from a reality show is good news for everyone. Not only that, but it is actually very good. We toggled this with the baseball playoffs (while TiVo-ing The Office for pure television pleasure at a time of our choosing) and actually came away impressed. It is often funny, big-hearted, and relevant, sometimes all at once.

5. Friday Night Lights(5). Even though Lights seems doomed for failure, we have to keep it at #5 for at least one more week. The writing and execution is just too good to put it below something formulaic and unoriginal. We refuse. We also contend that Peter Berg might very well be a genius. He is one of those guys that seems to know and understand a great deal about the world, yet he delivers it in a way that is easy to digest and is completely lacking in pretense. Is that a genius? I think it might be. The hosts of The View stepped up and pimped Lights on their show last week and wondered if perhaps a show with Friday in the title is causing confusion by being aired on a Tuesday. If this is true, then A) we as a culture truly have no hope, and B) NBC should go ahead and move this thing to Fridays and hope for the best. It can't do any worse, ratings-wise.

6. Dexter(9). Based on quality, this show would probably rank in the top three. However, because Dexter is on Showtime, it gets to play by different rules and thereby has a big advantage. The writers can weave a new subplot into the second episode ("Crocodile") in the form of a new Dexter "target" (an acquitted drunk driver, which, admittedly, seems borrowed from season two of Rescue Me) while slow-playing the "Ice Truck" killer from the pilot. Things are tense and layered, but moving at a rich, easy pace that not only vastly improves the quality of the production, but also indicates that those in charge have confidence in their staying power. We still contend that the supporting cast is woeful, but Michael C. Hall has been very good so far. Even the narration is working, which is a stunning fact, in and of itself. (Since, you know, narration almost always sucks.) If the network shows above continue to slide, it won't be long before Dexter is in the top five and climbing.

7. Shark(6). This show isn't going to reinvent the genre, but as far as "episodic legal dramas" go, this isn't half bad. James Woods continues to blow people off the screen and the stories are pretty good. I thought Shark was far more interesting than Boston Legal last week, which is a pretty good sign. All told though, we aren't real excited. Can you tell?

8. The Nine(3). This is the biggest drop of the week and the rationale is two-fold. First, the story for episode two wasn't nearly as compelling as the pilot. The whole "say what we want and get a medal and if you don't, your life will suck" storyline is kind of tired. We've seen this a hundred times before. The fledgling love interests are boring, Scott Wolf's Kavorikian impression was transparent (but still strangely riveting), and we are pretty sure we overrated Tim Daly as an actor in last week's edition. The Nine needs to focus more on the odd, Stockholm Syndrom-type relationship between the the hostake taker and the bank manager's daughter. Well, that and somehow convince an additional six million people to start watching the show. How do you fail to hold the time spot after Lost?

9. Brothers and Sisters (NR). The show has some pacing issues, but it makes up for it in the fact that there are plenty of good actors and well-written dialogue. Last week's episode wasn't really our style (some sort of love triangle), but the mere fact that it is winning the ratings game - when so many new shows are not - is enough to put it in the top 10. Plus, one of the actors is named Balthazar, so they have that going for them.

10. Six Degrees(10). I think the good people making this show know that the writing is on the wall, given the way they are absolutely flying through story arcs. The burnout photographer has already resolved things with his son, Monyahan's character has already discovered her fiance to be a philandering loser with a bad accent, and The Limo Driver has already warned The Public Defender that "people might be looking for" his pseudo-girlfriend. It is hard to see how this show can improve, with so many cats being out of the bag. We envision this moving toward melodrama and losing whatever nuance is currently making this compelling television. Of course, a few more Thursday nights like the last one and no one will ever find out either way. Six Degrees truly has one foot out the door right now.

Falling Out: The Class (7). When Drew sat down to watch the second episode as "homework" for the column, he had a revelation: "Here is what we do. We write an unbearable, moronic sitcom and plan to use a laugh track extensively. When networks are hesitant to buy it - because it sucks and all - we just point to The Class as proof that people love that kind of thing." Needless to say, we aren't high on The Class.

Just Missed: Nothing. Maybe Justice, but that is a stretch. Men in Trees?

On The Way: Dirt, Mis/Guided, Daybreak, and Knights of Prosperity.

Little Chance of Ever Making This List: Vanished, Standoff, Happy Hour, 30 Rock (the last 15 minutes of the pilot might have been the worst television we've ever seen), and 20 Good Years (is the laugh track necessary?).

Friday, October 13, 2006

NYC Hip-Hop: Who's Got Next?

For the most part, I can do without ESPN: The Magazine. It's all a little too pithy and clever for my tastes and besides, I think we can all agree that there is plenty of ESPN in our lives already. It's practically unavoidable; multiple channels, a website that takes 90 seconds to load and then starts blaring highlights at you, mobile phones, and so on. That said, I love when "The Mag" runs its "Next" issue - a series of articles highlighting the up-and-coming stars in various sports around the globe.

There is something exciting about discovering a previously unknown talent and there is a certain thrill in seeing someone reach the next level. I think I am enjoying the LeBron James Experience so much because I've been following it since he was a sophomore in high school.

With that in mind, it seemed like a good idea to tie that "Next" concept in with my favorite subject of all: hip-hop.

And since I was already planning on creating a monthly "Regional Report" feature that highlights various aspects of hip-hop around the country, it seemed appropriate to just go ahead and run with all of this, all at once. What follows is the first "Regional Report" and it focuses on some of the up-and-coming rappers from New York City who may very well be the "Next" stars in hip-hop. I was going to cover the entire country, but it was starting to shape up as a 5,000-word column, so I decided to break them into regions. Be on the look out for more to come in the very near future.

New York City. New York is the birthplace of hip-hop. From Sugarhill Gang to Public Enemy to Biggie to Jay-Z and Nas, New York was always the leader in terms of cultural movement, musical trends, and industry sales. The West Coast burst on the scene with N.W.A. in the late 80's and remained a constant foil throughout the 1990's, peaking with the Biggie-2 Pac feud. My how things have changed. The South dominates hip-hop now and even a city like Chicago is rivaling NYC for rap superiority. 50 Cent's brief nexus of street/critical appeal and commercial success in 2003 looked like a big step for the Big Apple, but Curtis Jackson and the rest of G-Unit have become nothing but a well-oiled sales force since.

Will New York ever resume its place at the top? There are rumors that Jay-Z is coming out of retirement with a new album titled Kingdom Come and Nas has one of the most highly anticipated albums in years on the way in the form of Hip-Hop is Not Dead. Even Puff Daddy, sorry, Diddy, is back in the mix, dropping his Press Play next week. That's a lot of firepower and combined with a recent release from Lloyd Banks and a solid offering from Method Man, this is probably the hottest the city has been in a while.

That said, for NYC to truly reemerge as the dominant force in rap music, the city is going to need new blood to burst onto the scene. Here are the artists that seem most likely to get the job done.

Primary Challenger - Saigon. His major label debut The Greatest Story Never Told continues to be pushed back further and further to the point where I'm starting to worry that the title is going to be prophetic. That said, I can't imagine anyone that has a better shot at bringing New York rap back to the forefront than Saigon. He's got arguably the hottest producer in the industry (Just Blaze) in his corner, a distribution deal with Atlantic records, and a series of guest spots on Entourage that only served to boost his popularity. Saigon's combination of gritty street tales, clever punch lines, aggressive boasts, and on-screen persona have him poised to be an enormous hip-hop star. We just need that album to come out. Sometime. Anytime.

(By the way, everyone should know this Saigon story that occurred earlier this year. He was stabbed in the head with a beer bottle in a robbery and then ran around trying to hail a cap so that he could avoid getting blood in his Benz. Unable to do so, he eventually drove himself to the hospital where he wound up getting a whopping seventy stitches.)

Listen to: "The Letter P Freestyle," "Contraband," "Pain in My Life," and "Yup, Yup."

Secondary Challenger - Papoose. It was a tough call to relegate Papoose to second string. His label situation seems more secure than Saigon's as Jive/Violator recently made Papoose the "1.5 Million Dollar Man" and immediately put his debut album "Nacirema Dream" (American spelled backward) at the top of the priority list. And for good reason. Papoose has become an underground monster, churning out nearly a dozen highly regarded mixtapes in just a few years. In fact, so prolific was the Brooklyn rapper that he received the 2005 Justo Award, given to the top underground artist. Nicknamed "The Lyrical One" and compared to the late Harlem legend Big L, Papoose's only shortcoming is that he seems to lack the charisma of Saigon. He's rhymes aren't as incendiary and his style - while steady - can become a tad boring after too many spins. Expect this intelligent and confident rapper to have a long, prolific career, but I'm not sure he's going to become a megastar. He's like the NY rap version of Emeka Okafor.

Listen to: "Brooklyn Stand Up," "Alphabetical Slaughter," "Out in New York," and "Wake Up Call."

Darkhorse - Joell Ortiz. This Brooklyn rapper is probably the closest thing I've heard to Big Pun since the Terror Squad star's passing. Ortiz has a very nice flow and sounds polished, even on mixtapes and freestyles, and the track "I Mean Business" from NBA Live 2005 was a standout on a strong collection. The recent news that Ortiz has signed to Aftermath increases his chances of blowing up ... provided he ever cracks the rotation. Being signed to Aftermath appears to be a blessing and a curse - on the one hand, you have the most powerful imprint in the industry behind you (which means the best beats, best marketing, and a certain level of respect), but on the other hand, you might be waiting in line for years before you get your debut into stores. If Ortiz does get his chance, his stock may skyrocket. With his sharp punchlines, unwavering confidence, and fabulous metaphors, he could really stand out in a sea of mediocrity.

Listen to: "Who Better Than Me," "Mean Business," "Brooklyn," and "Hold it Down."

Others to Watch - Jae Millz, Cory Gunz, Stimuli, Uncle Murder, Maino, Eldorado Red, and Mazaradi Fox. It is interesting to hear people speak of the bleak NYC landscape, because there is a lot of talent ready to come up. Saigon and Papoose have the buzz and support systems to pump out platinum records in the near future, but the rest of these artists can make an impact as well.

Jae Millz made some noise this summer with the Scott Stoch-produced "My Swag" and dropped an impressive verse on the NYC Remix of Chamillionaire's "Ridin'". You might remember him as the guy that P. Diddy brought in to battle Ness on "Making the Band," but the Harlem rapper should be able to make a bigger impression than that when his Universal debut drops later this year or early next.

If you've heard of Cory Gunz it was probably as the young sidekick of the rapping version of Shaquille O'Neal or the son of veteran rapper Peter Gunz. Now he's grown up and he's signed to Def Jam and has Jay-Z himself overseeing his debut album, so he is someone to keep an eye on.

As recently as a year ago, Brooklyn's Stimuli was being mentioned alongside Saigon and Papoose as the next big thing to come out of New York, but he's been slow to saturate the mixtape circuit (he's only put out three in the past three years, which doesn't seem to cut it in this day and age) and things with his label, Virgin, have been dicey to say the least. If you heard his verse on The Clipse's "On My S***" then you know that this guy can rap. But will the masses get the chance to hear him?

Uncle Murder is quite possibly the most unique member of this group. The Brooklyn rapper has kind of a mumbling, nasally drawl that seems more equipped for a Mannie Fresh beat. He doesn't seem to have the talent of some of the other New York prospects, but given how well the South is selling these days, maybe his out-of-town sound is the key to success.

Maino calls himself "The King of Brooklyn," but so far he hasn't been able to emerge beyond being a sidekick to Lil' Kim or even fellow rookie Papoose. If you ask me, he's pretty average and plays up his "time spent behind bars" shtick too much. That said, he's popping up on every other Funkmaster Flex track, he had that massive underground hit "Rumors," and he's signed to a big Universal deal, so we probably shouldn't count him out.

Eldorado Red is a Harlem emcee who grew up listening to Afrika Bambaattaa and Jazzy Jay but is now teamed up with famed West Coast producer Rick Rock. If that juxtaposition isn't enough, he got his name from the Donald Goines novel. Throw in the fact that he can really rap and that he is unabashedly in pursuit of massive amounts of money and I think we may wind up hearing from this guy.

Finally, there is Mazarati Fox, who is arguably the biggest mystery on this New York list. We know he's from South Jamaica, Queens, just like 50 Cent, who supposedly signed him to G-Unit a few days ago. Known as "Million Dollar Fox," he's already got his first underground single out titled, "Pop My Heaters" which features - not surprisingly - Fifty himself and features several claims about Fox being someone worthy of fear. Considering the lukewarm reception that new G-Unit members Hot Rod and Spider Loc (more on them later in future editions of this column) are getting, maybe this guy will give Fifty and company a boost. On the other hand, considering that he sounds like a water-down Prodigy (of Mobb Deep), I'm not holding my breath.

That's it for now. Be sure to weight in with any thoughts on the New York hip-hop scene and be on the lookout for future columns looking at the Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, and the West Coast.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Scorsese's Time Has Come

There might not be a more intriguing and diabolical story line in the world of film than Martin Scorsese's futile pursuit of an Academy Award.

He's been slighted in every way possible over the years: when crafting the most inventive film (Taxi Driver), the best movie (Raging Bull and Goodfellas), and the most epic production (The Aviator). No matter what his level of brilliance, it has never been enough for the academy. Whether this is the result of some kind of personal vendetta, sheer bad luck, or a case of the rules changing as we go, the fact is that one of - if not the best - directors of all time is still without an Oscar for Best Director.

Well, it says here that the time has come. Marty is finally going to get his long-awaited and much-deserved Academy Award. Here are the reasons why:

*Spoiler Alert!* (If you haven't seen The Departed yet, feel free to skip down to point number two. Don't say you weren't warned.)

1. The Film Itself. This seems a little obvious, but it must be mentioned. I can't recall the last time I went to see a movie that was this highly anticipated and that still managed to live up to the hype. The theatre was enormous, people were lining up hours beforehand on the third night of release, and the crowd was one hundred percent into the movie the entire time. It felt epic in scope, larger than life. At the same time, The Departed was an incredibly subtle movie. In fact, it was the juxtaposition of "epic" and "subtle" that made it such a fabulous movie. Vulgarity fused with intelligence, heads being blown off set against a backdrop of complex moral ambiguities.

Take Leonardo DiCaprio's character as evidence of Scorsese's ability to fuse violence and passion with a light touch. DiCaprio's discomfort with the world's worst undercover assignment was seen in the bold, brash scenes like the "feed me to the poor" rant in the back of the Martin Sheen's car, but even more so in his seen-but-never-discussed dependance on Oxycontin. The character's story arch visually ended in the most visceral and dramatic fashion possible, yet the ultimate conclusion of DiCaprio's Billy Cositgan came in the quietest moment - when he ultimately regained his name and his honor in the form of a police burial.

Scorsese's constant ability to blend loud and quiet, bold and subtle was impressive, to say the least. The movie gained strength in its contemplative silences (DiCaprio's powerfully wordless acting right before Vera Farmiga asks if he is "really that vulnerable") as well as in its gruesome violence. Even the musical accompaniment revealed this delicate balance, running the gamut from the uber-aggresive Boston anthem "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" by the Dropkick Murphy's to Howard Shore's delicate score.

The other magical aspect of The Departed was watching a cast full of heavyweights transform into authentic characters within a matter of moments. While some of the Boston accents might have been a little in-and-out and forced, the personas were not. Matt Damon easily morphed into cocky, sneaky, guilt-ridden Colin Sullivan. DiCaprio obviously became his character (as he always does). Even larger-than-life Jack Nicholson moves away from "Jack being Jack" territory long enough to make you think you are watching Frank Costello.

I have always contended that Scorsese's work on The Aviator was immensely underrated, because of the way he that he orchestrated such a massive undertaking. There is more to being a good director than just holding one long shot or using color filters for various scenes. There is also more to it than just telling a great story. The other element is actually directing an enormous project - managing and utilizing the hundreds of people on set. Despite a reputation for being a perfectionist, Scorsese rarely goes over budget or runs long on a shoot. That, to me, is remarkable. And his ability to make all of these huge personalities mesh and melt into an authentic story is directing at its finest. I mean, he was nearly able to reign in Nicholson, which pretty much says it all.

Speaking of Jack ...

2. The Nicholson Factor. One of the theories floating around in Hollywood regarding Marty's Oscar drought is that the academy doesn't like him. The reasons range from a prickly personality (read: no patience for inept members of the media) to his New York address to his refusal to participate in industry politics. Whatever the actual reason, you can make a good case he's been on the wrong side of the aisle where the academy is concerned. When you've been at it as long as Scorsese has, it is pretty hard to change that dynamic.

So what's the next best thing? Bringing aboard a true academy favorite, andJack Nicholson is that guy. Nominated a whopping 12 times for Best Actor, Nicholson has actually managed to break through and win on several occasions, most notably in 1998 for As Good as It Gets. Getting Jack to leave his Staples Center courtside seats to shoot a movie for the first time since 2003 was a major coup for Scorsese. You know that Nicholson will be getting a Best Supporting Actor nomination (and probably a win), which is only going to build the Oscar buzz surrounding The Departed.

3. A Quick Glance at the Names of Other Winners. Granted, their wins came in another category, but the fact is, Eminem and Three-Six Mafia have Oscars and Scorsese doesn't. I have to believe that at some point, voters are going to notice this as well and attempt to rectify this incongruence, lest future civilizations assume the worst about us.

4. The Recent Nature of the Award. Lately, the Academy Awards have started to take on a bit of a lifetime achievement feel, or perhaps you could even say that it has a "makeup call" type of feel to it.

Just take the Best Actor debacle that occurred from 2000-2002. Russell Crowe should have won in 2000 for The Insider but since they gave it to Kevin Spacey that year as part of the American Beauty lovefest, they had to turn around and give Crowe the award in 2001 (for Gladiator), even though he was more deserving the following year (2002) for A Beautiful Mind. Unfortunately, they had to give it to Denzel Washington that year as a makeup for Malcom X and - to a lesser extent - The Hurricane, even though A) Denzel's work in Training Day wasn't all that amazing and B) the only aspect that garnered A Beautiful Mind (a movie that wasn't much better than "good") its Best Picture award was Crowe's acting. Confused yet? Exactly.

So even though The Departed may not be the single greatest movie of Scorsese's career (although I think I rank it higher up that list than many), he may get the vote simply from a "crowning achievement" angle. Check out the the history that will be rattling around in the minds of academy voters while they are thinking "maybe we should finally give him one":

1976 - Taxi Driver. He wasn't even nominated here, but that has more to do with how early this happened in his career. I think he might have won if this comes out five years later.

1981 - Raging Bull. His greatest movie and, obviously, greatest slight. He lost to Warren Beatty for Reds, which is just a joke, in retrospect.

1989 - The Last Temptation of Christ. Lost to Oliver Stone for Born on the 4th of July.

1991 - Goodfellas. The greatest mob movie ever made that doesn't have "Godfather" in the title, Scorsese had the bad luck to be going up against Jonathan Demme the year that Silence of the Lambs was taking the Oscars by storm.

1993 and 1995 - Age of Innocence and Casino. This was the height of the anti-Marty era. I'm not saying he should have won for either of these films, but all he came away with was one lousy Best Screenplay nomination.

2003 - Gangs of New York. I'm convinced this will wind up being one of the most underrated movies of his career. He spent eight years crafting this story, launched DiCaprio into the "Next DeNiro" stage of his career, coaxed a legendary performance out of Daniel Day Lewis (who somehow didn't win Best Actor for his "Bill the Butcher" character), and created an entire city in Italy in which to shoot the movie. Fantastic cinematic work, yet he lost to a guy that had been run out of America for having sex with minors (Roman Polanski). There is no justice.

2005 - The Aviator. If I'm being honest, this movie doesn't really stack up with Scorsese's best, but as I mentioned above, it was a tremendous achievement in film management, if nothing else. I am still bummed that Clint Eastwood beat Scorsese here.

And speaking of Clint ...

5. The Biggest Threats Don't Appear that Big. I've been looking forward to The Departed for months and a big part of that has been my hope that this will finally be the movie that gets Marty some hardware. Of course, those hopes were tempered the minute I realized that the academy's golden boy, Clint Eastwood, was launching his next collaboration with another academy golden boy (this one of more recent vintage), Paul Haggis, in the form of Flags of Our Fathers. Talk about a potential Oscar-winning film. By all accounts, the movie is very well done and a nice tribute to our veterans, but from the word on the street to the cast to the previews, it doesn't feel like a Best Picture (and therefore Best Director) shoo-in. This is good news for Scorsese.

Not only is Flags looking less formidable than it otherwise might have been, but other Oscar hopefuls look less than intimidating. The Queen is getting great reviews but it seems like it will get its due in the form of a Best Actress nomination (and possible win) for Helen Mirren. Same for Little Children and Kate Winslet. All the King's Men got a lukewarm reception from critics and bombed at the box office, so it is probably out. Bobby is directed by Emilio Estevez, for crying out loud, so unless we are ready to face the apocalypse, I don't think he will be beating Scorsese. Dreamgirls is getting a lot of buzz, but even if it gets Best Picture consideration, I can't see a musical taking the Best Director category this year. Blood Diamond is only the second-best Leo DiCaprio vehicle of Oscar season, so that shouldn't be a real threat.

In fact, other than Eastwood, the one director that looms as the greatest threat to keep the unfortunate streak intact is the fabulously talented Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who has already gained fame with Amores Perros and 21 Grams and whose Babel is looming as a huge critical hit.

For years it seems that Scorsese has had the misfortune of releasing his strongest movies during the strongest years, but all things considered, that particular run of bad luck appears to be ending. There will be some intriguing choices, but if the academy is truly interested in rectifying this long-standing slight, they might have the right year and the right movie to work with.

The Departed is vintage Scorsese and a movie with no visible flaws. This year, this time, that should be enough.

The again, I've thought that before.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The New Show Power Rankings

In case you missed the big news, CBS has already canned Smith, while NBC is subjecting Kidnapped to a slow, torturous "death by short-run series on Saturday nights." Yes, that's right, it's that time of the year: when new shows start getting axed and network execs start saving face!

Like any good gladiator-type activity, you can't tell the players without a scorecard. That's why this seemed like a good time to introduce a new gimmick to the BlogCritics domain, and thus, to the massive, freakish community we call the Internet.

Starting today, my very handsome brother, Drew, and I will be posting a weekly "New TV Shows: The Power Rankings" column to keep you up to date on what to watch, what to TiVo and maybe-watch-if-all-else-fails, and what to avoid at all costs. Okay, so it won't be that in-depth, but it will still rate the top 10 new shows each week in real time. (And by shows, we mean shows with real actors, no reality TV.)

This isn't an end-all list, but rather a concentrated place to chatter about the new slate of television, argue about what is working and what isn't, and to rail on the general populous for watching reruns of CSI: Miami while our favorite new shows die on the ratings vine. To us, the most interesting things going on in television right now are A) the ongoing battles between studio-produced shows and reality TV, and B) the annual survival of the fittest competition undertaken by all the new shows. We can keep on eye on all of that right here.

The initial list will focus more on the big picture, while subsequent Power Rankings will feature movement based on the previous week's slate of shows. Let's get it going.

The Top 10

1. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It appears Aaron Sorkin is back to his old manic (you fill in the blanks) ways and the rapid-fire dialogue, multi-tiered cast, and revolving plots of Sports Night and early seasons of The West Wing are back with him. The question is whether the viewers that failed to keep Sports Night on the air will show up this time around. We know from Entourage that a surprising number of people will tune in to an industry show that might seem too far inside at first glance. However, we also know that Entourage airs on HBO, where the pressure to bring in 15 million viewers isn't a factor. So far the show has been fantastic, allowing Matthew Perry to shine while balancing him against a stellar ensemble cast. It will be interesting to see if the story lines can remain riveting now that "Matt and Danny" are firmly entrenched at Studio 60.

2. Heroes. If you were going to back a new show in the hopes that it will survive and thrive in the same way that Lost did two years ago, this might be your best bet. Heroes is getting good buzz from critics and fans alike and has posted good numbers to boot. It feels a bit too much like a scaled-down X-Men rip, but that actually works out okay, because this is the year of derivative television. Studio 60 mocks SNL. Ugly Betty is borrowed from a Spanish Channel Telenovella. Friday Night Lights is a TV show based on a movie which is based on a book. The recently-canceled Smith just threw together some scenes from Heat, Ocean's 11, and The Italian Job and called it a day. Kidnapped is merely the product of someone thinking, "Hey, what if we made Man on Fire into a TV show?" And on and on it goes. So once you understand the landscape, you can really get behind Heroes, which is well-done, intriguing, and showing a capacity for real mystery, which is what made Lost a sensation long before the more compelling human dramas kicked in. (Although I think we can all agree that the cast of Heroes is a far cry from that of Lost.

3. The Nine. I'm not sure people are going to tune in often enough to keep this one on the air, but here's hoping that they do. There was a big drop from Lost to The Nine last week, and to be honest, I'm not sure why. It is another drama about human connections and relentless adversity, so you would think the audience is there. Maybe it just too much in one block of time. That said, the pilot was extremely compelling and the show seems to have a Matthew Fox type that can anchor the ensemble cast in Tim Daly. It is a little jolting to see Scott Wolf back at work, but other than that, this show might be a winner.

4. Jericho. CBS' new concept drama doesn't seem to be as well-written as the previous shows on this list, but the sheer fact that this fictional world is going up in a literal mushroom cloud of smoke makes for good entertainment. I could do without Skeet Ulrich and his vacant expressions as a lead, but the actors are pretty tolerable across the board. Jericho has two big things going for it: A) It is doing pretty well in the ratings department, which means that fans of the show have some hope, and B) The possibilities are endless for plot turns. I have a good feeling about this show, even if I don't know why.

5. Friday Night Lights. You should know that we're not NBC acolytes, even if we do have three of the Peacock's shows in the top five. It seems a lot of people are singing the praises of these dramas, yet NBC is getting crushed in the ratings. This just proves once again that the average American just wants to turn off his brain when it comes time to plop down on the coach and watch the tube. I'm not sure how to solve this problem, other than to convince the networks to convince the advertisers that sometimes quality is better than quantity. Bright, engaged viewers who are willing to lock in for a demanding, challenging show are far more likely to retain something from the ads that float across the airwaves. Or something like that. Anyway, we had low expectations going in for Friday Night Lights because it was just made into a movie a few years ago, but the pilot was phenomenal. The game action could use some work (too many close ups, implausible scenarios, and continuity issues), but the human drama was fabulous. Peter Berg strikes me as one of those guys that knows an incredible amount about the world, yet is able to deliver it in a manner that is easy to digest and completely lacking in pretense. Is that a genius? It might be.

6. Shark. One recent trend in studio television is to anchor a new series with a proven actor. Ever since Keifer started blowing everyone off the screen as Jack Bauer, networks have been eager to get their greedy little paws on a proven commodity. We've seen Jeremy Piven light things up on Entourage, Dennis Leary absolutely dominate on Rescue Me, Steve Carrell own the comedy world on The Office, and even Martin Sheen pass as a president on The West Wing. It makes me wonder what would happen if Leo DiCaprio ever did an episodic drama; we'd probably wet our collective pants. This year Bridget Moynahan lends a hand on Six Degrees, Amanda Peet stars on Studio 60, and Ray Liotta crashed and burned on Smith. The latest attempts have ranged from "largely irrelevant" to "unmitigated disaster" with one notable exception: James Woods is owning his new role as a defensive attorney-turned-prosecutor. Episodic legal shows have done well for decades and this latest incarnation appears to be following in that tradition as it is holding up in the ratings and getting some pretty good buzz.

7. The Class. Here's our first sitcom. We've obviously become spoiled by the likes of The Office, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Scrubs, because many of us absolutely CAN NOT tolerate a laugh track. It makes you want to gouge your eyes out with a spoon. Nevertheless, this is actually a decent show with some funny lines and sight gags. We felt obligated to put a sitcom on here, so there you go. Let's see if it sticks.

8. Ugly Betty. People seem to really love this show, which makes sense, as it is pulling off the rarely seen "Double Rip." Not only is it an American version of a Telenovella, it is also blatantly cashing in on the success of The Devil Wears Prada. Amazing. That said, it is still well-done, funny, and occasionally poignant.

9. Dexter. This is totally cheating since Dexter is a Showtime contribution and they clearly play by different rules (I don't think a network could get away with a show about a good guy running around and killing people to feed his homicidal urges). That said, it is new and it is a show and Showtime doesn't have a "its not television" ad campaign, so we're counting it. The fact that it falls this far down the list is proof that it really isn't that good. For pay cable, I was highly disappointed. Michael C. Hall is pretty terrific, but it seems like they picked up the rest of the cast by handing out casting invites on Melrose Street. Just a lot of really, really bad acting in the pilot.

10. Six Degrees. J.J. Abrams' latest opus on the connectivity of life is more like a tribute to mediocrity. The aforementioned Monyahan is mailing it in, Jay Rodriguez is wearing a "when do I get to do another teenie bopper movie?" expression, and Erika Christensen continues to prove what a fluke her performance in Traffic was. If it wasn't for the guy that plays Hugh Grant's limo driver in Two Weeks Notice (playing, shockingly, a limo driver in this show), the cast would be pretty much uninspiring across the board. All of that said, we find ourselves tuning in every week to see all the crazy ways that people's lives overlap and connect. (Of course, we are the only ones, as this looks like a ratings disaster.) If you like that "Oh wow, they bumped into each two years before at a bar!" aspect of Lost, this might be the show for you. Without the polar bears, hatches, and Others, of course.

Just Missed: Brothers and Sisters, Men in Trees, and everyone's favorite soon-to-be-cancelled guilty pleasure Justice.

On The Way: 30 Rock, Twenty Good Years, and Knights of Prosperity

Little Chance of Ever Making This List: Vanished, Standoff, Happy Hour, 'Till Death, and Help Me Help You.