Here’s a look at my reactions to some recent headlines in the pop-culture world.
Breaking Bad returned for its final run of eight episodes last Sunday night, drawing nearly 5.9 million viewers and doubling its highest ratings from previous seasons.
While I’m surprised that the ratings have increased as much as they have, the uptick itself seems like a product of Netflix binge-watching, increased enthusiasm for the show as it approaches its endgame and an insistent promotional campaign that featured such delicacies as the Ozymandias ad and Bryan Cranston’s appearance in a Walter White mask during the show’s Comic-Con panel. Rumors about a potential spinoff starring everyone’s favorite lawyer whom they had better call, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), should only intensify now that the show appears to have fully crossed over into mainstream culture.
As for the episode itself? Those 5.9 million viewers could not have tuned in at a more heart-racing time. “Blood Money” featured two or three scenes that rivaled the show’s most dramatically potent to date (Walt and Hank’s confrontation in the garage, Walt’s loaded conversation with Jesse about Mike, Skyler forbidding Lydia from returning to the car wash), advanced speculation about upcoming events with a killer flash-forward tease (“Hello, Carol”) and eased the tension with several moments of impeccable comedy (Jesse lighting up in Saul’s waiting room, Skinny Pete and Badger hatching an epic Star Trek movie plot). Here is a show that knows how to satisfy its audience and deliver challenging material in equal measure. Bring on the next seven.
Katy Perry and Lady Gaga both released their new singles ahead of schedule after an unknown source leaked them online. Perry’s “Roar” is currently outpacing Gaga’s “Applause” on the iTunes chart, and Perry’s first-week sales are expected to total well over 100,000 more copies than Gaga’s.
It’s been amusing to watch two of the biggest stars in pop music scramble after their best-laid plans of unveiling new music crumbled to pieces on the Internet right around the same time. While I was initially surprised that “Roar” is currently ahead of “Applause” on the charts, I quickly realized that I had been looking forward to Perry’s return more than I had Gaga’s. Perry outstayed her welcome during the Teenage Dream cycle, but that record had several terrific songs including the title track. Gaga, meanwhile, disappointed when she failed to deliver “the greatest album of the decade” (her words, not mine) with Born This Way.
“Roar” contains every pop empowerment cliché under the sun (the chorus contains the lines “Eye of the tiger/fighter), but darn it if that chorus isn’t ridiculously catchy, especially with the syncopated “o-o-ar” at the tail end. It’s not “Teenage Dream,” but it might be more enjoyable than “Firework,” and it’s certainly less self-serious. As for accusations that Katy Perry ripped off Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” my response is this: most pop songs like these are ripoffs of other pop songs. There’s a formula, and Perry stuck to it because it tends to yield strong results.
As for “Applause,” I’m not sure how much I care about Lady Gaga’s obsession with people telling her they love her via putting their hands up and making them touch, but the song is lean, aggressive and unmistakably Gaga (maybe even more overtly Madonna-esque than ever before). It’s not a stunner on the level of “Bad Romance,” but it’ll do for now.
Lady Gaga and Katy Perry will be linked together quite a bit this season. They’ll both perform their new singles live for the first time at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 25th. They’ll both release high-profile albums within the next couple months (Perry’s “Prism” arrives October 22nd; Gaga’s “Artpop” drops a few weeks later on November 11th). And their new singles are actually similar in quality, scope and ambition. Neither one redefines our perceptions of these artists, and neither one radically departs from their well-established styles. But both make strong cases for their re-entry into the pop mainstream. Here’s hoping Perry and Gaga can parlay this momentum for a strong fall.
Kendrick Lamar dropped a blistering guest verse on Big Sean’s new song “Control” in which he called out rappers like J. Cole, Drake, Big K.R.I.T. and
First and foremost: this rap verse is absolutely amazing. The wordplay is intricate, the flow impenetrable, the emotion angry and ferocious. Regardless of the lyrical content, I plan to listen to Lamar’s part of this song several more times. As for letting his hip-hop brethren know that he respects them but reminding them that hip-hop is a game of oneupsmanship that he plans to win…why does it have to be that way? I understand that much of the rap music tradition tends to be focused on dominating with the best rhymes and the slickest verses, but I think hip-hop could stand to be a more inclusive environment, tradition aside. The rivalry is entertaining enough, but Kendrick doesn’t need to prove himself any more than he already has with this superb verse.
The superhero news cycle was abuzz this week with news that Fox plans to offer Hugh Jackman $100 million to return as Wolverine in future X-Men films and solo adventures. Meanwhile, the search for Batman continues, as Nathan Fillion tosses his hat OUT of the race and the studio apparently wants Christian Bale to return, even though the actor said last July that he’s looking forward to seeing what his successor will do in the role.
If Hugh Jackman decides that he needs $100 million badly enough that he will return to a character that he’s played in seven different movies over the past decade and a half, more power to him. But I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if he turned the offer down and decided to pursue other projects. Wolverine is a great cinematic creation and the character is inextricably tied to Jackman’s physical and emotional commitment to the role, but (without having seen his latest movie) I don’t think the character has many more depths left to explore on the big screen. By contrast, I’m very curious to see what Jackman would be able to do with a career that isn’t weighed down by commitment to a multi-billion dollar franchise. He’s acquitted himself well in non-Wolvy projects before (The Prestige stands out), but his dynamite hosting turns on the Oscars and Tonys demonstrated comedic and musical prowess that the big screen hasn’t tapped yet. As much as I crave originality in directing and screenwriting, I crave it in casting as well. We know Hugh Jackman is an action hero. Let’s see what else those claws can do.
As for Christian Bale returning to play Batman…he probably won’t, but if he did, yawn. He did a fine job in the role (even his impenetrably gruff demeanor occasionally inspired guffaws), but once again, I’d be more interested in seeing Zack Snyder’s vision of the DC Universe filled out with a character who we haven’t already seen in three immensely successful, often satisfying films.
Ellen DeGeneres will host the 2014 Oscars on ABC. Show producers Craig Zadan and Neal Meron signed the deal within 48 hours of reaching out to the daytime TV sensation.
Last year, Zadan and Meron opted for the frat-boy comedic stylings of Family Guy creator and Ted writer-director-star Seth MacFarlane, who alienated quite a bit of the viewing audience with sexist jokes about women not being able to let anything go and a crass, full-length number entitled “We Saw Your Boobs.” DeGeneres is a much safer, and probably more promising, choice. She’s a known quantity, and she’ll deliver pretty much exactly what we’ll expect: an amusing monologue, fun bits with the audience throughout the show, and a much more positive, inclusive vibe than last year. It won’t set anyone’s world on fire, but then again, the Oscar hosting gig isn’t really flammable. Though if Neil Patrick Harris were to sign on…